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Review: 'Better Call Saul'

Premieres on AMC, Sunday, Feb. 8, 10 p.m. (ET/PT) 2/08/2015 6:00 PM Eastern

Fans of AMC’s Breaking Bad know Saul Goodman as the wise-ass private consigliere, played by Bob Odenkirk, to accidental drug kingpin Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. Saul also counseled White’s longtime drug-dealing sidekick Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul.

 

This prequel shows us how a young lawyer (real name Jimmy McGill) developed the skills that made him the ultimate sleazy shyster who can quietly fi x any problem, for the right price, while also advertising his name all around Albuquerque.

 

It stars Odenkirk, who does fear, funny and empathetic equally well and can carry any scene. It also stars Jonathan Banks, as Mike Ehrmantraut, the ex-cop-turned-fixer and cleaner par excellence in Breaking Bad. Other familiar characters also play a part.

 

It doesn’t star Cranston or Paul, so it will be interesting to see how the audiences for the two series compare.

 

Certainly, any Breaking Bad fan should sign up without hesitation. Beyond that will depend on how compelling the action and story and direction are.

 

The first episode (three were reviewed) starts out with a stylish look, set in the present day after the events of Breaking Bad, and director-writer Vince Gilligan sets the mood brilliantly. The timeline then jumps back six years, segueing through a slowly-building courtroom set piece that introduces Jimmy McGill as a finely-tuned orator, though in a completely futile cause.

 

Jimmy is about as down on his luck as you can be, collecting tiny fees from the state for public defender work. Ambitiously, he spots opportunities and goes after them: a public official who’s made the papers because more than $1 million goes missing. He has trouble sealing the deal, though. When it looks like he might have hit bottom, he turns it around into another opportunity, via a modest scam that’s maybe just this side of a shakedown. Naturally, things go very wrong, and Jimmy is gradually drawn into the world of thieves and psychopaths.

 

There’s another path to a potential payday through his brother, Charles, a skilled lawyer recently suffering through some troubles, played by Michael McKean, but that’s another source of frustration.

 

It’s all well-written, played and directed, with lots of nice Gilligan visual and musical touches, dark humor and Rockford Files-like efforts to mostly do the right thing. By episode three, it’s very sleuthy, with a bit of a Big Lebowski vibe. Odenkirk is great and Banks, whose Ehrmentraut starts out here as just a grumpy guy, and McKean bring what they bring. Saul also has a female (legitimate) lawyer friend, Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. AMC is playing the first two episodes on succeeding nights.

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