- by Jeff Beck
Better Call Saul: The Complete First Season: A Sharply-Written and Engaging Prequel (Blu-ray)
When it was announced that there was going to be a spinoff of AMC’s hit show “Breaking Bad,” there were only so many ways that such news could be taken. It could be seen as an obvious attempt to cash in on the previous show’s success or perhaps a rather unnecessary attempt to continue where it had left off. After all, “Breaking Bad” had been a monumental show that had told a brilliantly-conceived story, so how on Earth could you even begin to take it any further? However, a more optimistic option was that its creator (Vince Gilligan) had other areas of that world that he wanted to explore, and who better to use as a central character than the sleazy lawyer that we’ve come to know as Saul Goodman? Whether you thought it was a good idea in the first place or not, we now have a prequel show to tell us all about him with “Better Call Saul,” which takes a look at the character before all of the madness that ensued from his association with Walter White.
Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is a down-on-his-luck lawyer who is desperately trying to find work. To pay the bills, he works as a public defense attorney, trying to make a name for himself while working out of an office in the back of a nail salon. On top of that, he is taking care of his brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), a former lawyer who has developed a sensitivity to electricity, which has practically left him a prisoner in his own home. Jimmy does manage to find other work along the way, including helping out an old friend with an embezzlement case and starting a specialty in elder law (preparing wills, etc.), but it’s the latter that helps him land the biggest case he’s ever come across, somewhat accidentally discovering that a nursing home has been overcharging its residents. The problem is, with such a massive case and only his brother to help him, it seems nearly impossible that they’ll be able to do it alone, leaving Jimmy with a rather tough decision of taking years to get it done, or turning to an old adversary in the hope of getting a little help.
Let’s just imagine for a moment that “Better Call Saul” had nothing to do with “Breaking Bad.” On its own, it’s a well-written, marvelously-acted, and, for the most part, a spellbinding show that has you entirely wrapped up in the (mis)adventures of a lawyer who jumps back and forth between getting things done the right way and letting his conscience take a day off. When you add in its affiliation to the previous show, it only becomes more fascinating because we know the exact kind of man that Jimmy is going to become and what he’s going to end up doing down the line. What this show is about is how he gets there, following the events that, we can only assume, will eventually lead up to his involvement with Walter White.
What’s particularly interesting about Jimmy as a character is that, even though he started off with rather humble beginnings (working in the mailroom of a law firm, struggling to get a law degree, etc.), we see his conscience already teetering about as we see what he’s willing to do in his pursuit of “justice.” However, even his original yearning to help still comes through as he tries to put together the massive case against the nursing home that’s committing fraud against its residents. A man who is this moralistically split would be a great focus for just about any TV show, but it merely makes it all the more engaging knowing full-well who he’s going to be in just a few short years.
As usual, a show like this would be nothing without a great story to tell, and that’s where the excellent writing comes in. Jimmy goes through quite a lot in just these first ten episodes, including an attempt to gain a client that nearly leaves him and two others dead, some questionable activities involving an embezzlement case, and helping out an acquaintance who may or may not be involved in murder. Jimmy always finds himself getting involved in one thing or another, but that’s what keeps the show so entertaining. It’s certainly not without its downtime, but there’s hardly a dull moment to be found in the ongoing barrage of unexpected events. It’s made even more impressive by the fact that none of it feels forced, coming off instead as a natural flow of what would really happen in the life of someone wrapped up in a situation like Jimmy’s. Writing the backstory for a character like this was indeed a massive challenge, but somehow they’ve managed to pull it off beautifully, making it a thrill to watch in the process.
We already knew how amazing an actor Bob Odenkirk was just from his supporting role on “Breaking Bad,” but here he gets the chance to truly expand on the character, filling him with even more personality, and taking us through the character’s evolution step by step. It’s a role that requires someone who can play suave for the courtroom and the various marks he scams, but also someone who can play comedy and drama in equal measure, a task which Odenkirk has risen to time and time again, earning him an Emmy nomination in the process. Saul was always one of those characters you wanted to see more of, mainly because of Odenkirk’s excellent performance, and in a way, this show is an answer to that very demand.
The other actor who deserves a mention here is Jonathan Banks, reprising his role as the quiet and enigmatic Mike Ehrmantraut. Here we meet him as a parking attendant who eventually calls on Jimmy for help, but he also gets a small sidestory of his own involving the murder of his son and the subsequent murder of the men responsible. There’s one episode that focuses strictly on Mike and these events, the last ten minutes of which feature Banks delivering a monologue that shows exactly why he was able to nab an Emmy nomination earlier this year. He may seem lowkey throughout most of the series, but when it comes to it, Banks delivers in spades.
When you put all of this together, it makes for a show that’s not only entertaining, but very much compelling. It may not have the depth of “Breaking Bad” (how could it?), but it delivers on giving us a show where we can’t wait to see what’s going to happen to its central character next, and what kind of decisions he’s going to make in the pursuit of establishing himself as the great lawyer he wants to be. With these ten episodes, it feels as though we’ve only scratched the surface of Jimmy’s backstory, and it’s with great anticipation (and a little impatience) that we await what will hopefully be an equally-amazing second season.
“Better Call Saul: Season One” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality, featuring a picture that is beautifully sharp with clear, bright colors. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is flawless, giving you all of the dialogue and the score in exceptional quality. Overall, the show has been given excellent treatment that couldn’t possibly be improved upon.
Better Call Saul: Day One (4 Minutes): A featurette featuring brief interviews with the cast and crew on the first day of filming.
Jimmy in the Courtroom (12 Minutes): A look at creating the montage of courtroom footage, with an introduction from director Michelle MacLaren.
Creating the First Season (24 Minutes): A great behind the scenes look at the making of the show, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
Good Cop, Bad Cop: Becoming Mike (12 Minutes): An interesting look at bringing the character of Mike into the show.
In the Studio (5 Minutes): A brief featurette about the creation of Saul’s song. Easily skippable.
Better Call Saul Music Video (3 Minutes): An easily skippable music video for Saul’s song.
In Conversation: Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean (34 Minutes): A fascinating and amusing conversation between Odenkirk and McKean in which they discuss how they got started and their influences.
“Uno” Table Read (53 Minutes): Exactly as the title implies, this is footage of most of the cast and crew reading through the pilot episode.
Jimmy Kaleidoscope (2 Minutes): A look at creating the kaleidoscopic shot from episode ten, with an introduction from co-creator Peter Gould.
Gag Reel (3 Minutes): An amusing collection of outtakes.
Audio Commentaries on All Ten Episodes: Semi-decent commentaries with members of the cast and crew, many of which suffer from having too many participants. This also includes a gag commentary from the Kettlemans for the episode “Bingo,” but it’s not worth listening to.
Deleted Scenes: A collection of deleted material from select episodes.
“Better Call Saul” is a sharply-written and instantly-engaging prequel that delivers on the fascinating concept of telling us the backstory of the eccentric and morally-questionable Saul Goodman. Featuring a pair of remarkable, Emmy-nominated performances from Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, the show stands on its own two feet as one of the most compelling and flat-out best new shows of the last year, making this a must-own release for any fan of great television.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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