AMC airs “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul”

“Breaking Bad” was one of the most renowned shows on cable television. Through five seasons the producer and creator Vince Gilligan spun a tale of desperation and power that was often as hilarious as it was brutal, a spectacle worthy of consumption that received due adoration from viewers. Recently, an spinoff of the series made its way back into the homes of millions.
“Better Caul Saul” hopes to recapture the spirit of “Breaking Bad,” or at least its commercial success. The pilot broke the record for the highest rated series premier for scripted television. The first two episodes were made available for streaming on AMC’s website, and the entirety of the show will appear on Netflix at the season’s end.

Those two free episodes are AMC’s attempts at luring viewers to seek out some paid cable service for further viewing, and I don’t think I will be buying in anytime soon. The show is familiar, resembling “Breaking Bad” in locale and moral murk, but so far it doesn’t seem to hit the same notes that gave its predecessor power over emotions.

James Morgan McGill is a lawyer portrayed in “Breaking Bad” as the man to call for legal help of a questionable nature. Saul catered to the villains and undesirables of the world, utilizing his oratory prowess and legalese slime to manipulate and profit. He was successful, with his own large office and booming small business that afforded him advertising space on every bus stop bench. “Better Call Saul” is this seedy fellow’s origin story as he develops from a struggling lawyer scraping by as a public defendant, to the underground’s legal Rosetta Stone.

The show’s first episode begins with an extended silent scene offering a glimpse into Saul’s life after the events of “Breaking Bad.” He is living modestly, hiding from his past but in awe of it. Gilligan is clearly trying to get viewers to empathize with Saul.

The rest of the episode, set earlier in 2002, attempts to develop his character as some unfortunate soul lost in the excesses of American society, scarcely able to afford to keep his car on the road. He is working out of a salon, in a cramped office in the back with a water heater for a roommate and a convertible futon couch for a bed.

By the end of the aptly named first episode “Uno,” Saul has arranged and attempted to execute insurance fraud, and I realized I should expect no better. Although the show presents many of the same grey shades of morality as “Breaking Bad,” the protagonist is guaranteed to become the same sleazeball he was in the original series. However, by the end of the second episode, other characters and sub plots have been sufficiently introduced to provide some mystery and incentive for further viewing.

From a cinematographic standpoint, “Better Call Saul” is fantastic. Every shot is framed artfully, the characters are generally believable, and the sound design is perfect. It is too early in the narrative to determine if Saul will be revealed as having sufficient justification for his behavior, but at this juncture the plot smells of some cheap cologne that seems almost certainly designed to repulse.