Better Call Saul season 1 episode 1 on Netflix: The spoiler-free review

Saul is struggling to find his identity, and so is the show

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The Independent Culture

There was a strong sense of 'why the hell not' about the genesis of Better Call Saul.

Vince Gilligan, one of the most genial and down to earth people working in television, clearly had a blast making Breaking Bad as did the writers, cast and crew, and there was such fondness for the intoxicating world they had created that dipping back into it was just too tempting. But decisions shouldn't be made on emotion, and for many fans of the show the prospect of a prequel was as frightening as it was exciting.

'As good as Breaking Bad' is a lot to ask for and most would probably settle for 'pretty entertaining in its own right', but when the pilot rolls out on AMC and Netflix this Sunday and Monday, I fear there will be a lot of people disappointed, or else trying to mask their disappointment as they stare forlornly at their favourite Los Pollos Hermanos mug trying to tell themselves the prequel is everything they wanted.

The Better Call Saul team (most of whom return from Breaking Bad) are a talented bunch and I would be very surprised if BCS turns out to be a bad show and have supreme confidence that they have woven another intricate plot like the one that left us all gasping and melting into our sofas at a close-up of a plant pot at the end of BB season 4. But is it tone and genre where BCS struggles in this first episode. The sombre black and white opening scene feels like something out of Nebraska (fittingly, as you will see) before pinballing to some vintage Saul allegories in a comedic trial at a violently yellow small court. We later see Goodman (né McGill) on the verge of tears, a family man deserving of our sympathy, but then he's back to hair-brain schemes and firing out one-liners.

The pilot pulls in all directions. It tries to reference and honour Breaking Bad and it tries to be its own animal. It mirrors some of its aesthetics and it very deliberately establishes its own (including a few pretty bizarre zooms and pans that jolt you out of the story). Its a slapstick caper and then its a character study.

Much has been made of its balance of humour and drama, but the first instalment is lacking in both. Breaking Bad, as outstanding as it was, was never wildly funny nor meant to be - Saul's withering sarcasm and overblown similes were welcome light relief amongst the gloom, but here fall a little flat. BCS could and should never be as weighty as BB - struggling lawyer isn't as dire a situation as cancer-stricken beaten down high school teacher - but it's hard to initially invest in the central law firm buy-out plot strand. I imagine there would be a lot of people channel hopping during the pilot were BB not looming large on its horizon, and its cliffhanger being given over to the return of a beloved BB character feels a little cheap.

I don't want to dishearten you. While this opening isn't as heart-stopping as BB's Walt pointing a pistol trouser-less in the desert, it does have some intriguing elements, it's a different kind of sensation and Bob Odenkirk gives an ebullient performance. Hopefully it will settle into its own groove as the weeks go by as it is at its best when it forgets about its mighty descendant. But right now, much like its protagonist, Better Call Saul is struggling to find its identity.

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