He wasn't always Saul Goodman, ace attorney for chemist-turned-meth dealer Walter White. Six years before he begins to represent Albuquerque's most notorious criminal, Goodman is Jimmy McGill, a small-time attorney hustling to make a name for himself. He's a forceful champion for his low-income clie… Morents, an underdog whose morals and ambitions often clash. Jimmy works with private eye Mike Ehrmantraut, a former Philadelphia cop and recent transplant to the Southwest. Mike has a specialized skill set -- he's a "fixer" of sticky situations -- that Jimmy soon learns to appreciate.
How do you make a good spin-off to arguably the best TV show that has ever run on television? How do you prequelize the series that everyone loved without tarnishing it's brand? That's the challenge the 'Breaking Bad' folks faced when they decided to spin 'Bad' off with an origins tale that focuses solely on one of the series' most likable criminal characters, Saul Goodman. Even though I love the Saul Goodman character, love 'Breaking Bad' and miss seeing it, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I was a little frightened that 'Better Call Saul' would turn out like the 'Star Wars' prequels. I had forgotten what I learned from 'Breaking Bad': in Vince we trust. Thanks to an amazingly talented production crew, writing staff and a network that had the faith to let them do whatever came to their twisted minds, Vince Gilligan delivered 62 perfect episodes of 'Breaking Bad,' why should we doubt that they could deliver ten more?
When you take the time to look at it, better call Saul does the exact same thing that breaking bad did: we follow two decent man into the pits of despair. It's another exploration of the downfall of man – but it couldn't be any more different from breaking bad. In its first 10 episode season, you never once get fatigued from watching the same routine play itself out. Saul is a different character, coming from different circumstances, and his level of criminality is quite different from that of Walter White/Heisenberg. Top that off with a drastically different tone, like that of a court room drama mixed with sarcastic humor, and that's what you're getting with the first season, but it shows us how James Magill turned into the slimy greaseball attorney that we would love to watch, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk).
Being from the same folks that made 'Bad' good, you're definitely going to notice similarities. Stylistically, you're going to see some of the same elements, but aside from the series' six-minute black & white intro and one 'Bad'-like backstory episode that happens mid-season, it doesn't carry the "Crystal Blue Persuasion" flavor of the series that introduced us to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. He still wears the cheap suits and nasty aftershave and has a deck of dirty tricks up his sleeve – but that's just the thing. We're not getting Slick Saul here. We're getting Slipping Jimmy.
Before Saul Goodman was the shady lawyer that we know him as, he was James McGill, a rising attorney-at-law … sort of. All the charisma and bullshitting that we know he's capable of, thanks to 'Bad,' couldn't keep him from respectably practicing law – no matter how hard he tried. As a court-assigned public criminal defense lawyer, he only made 700 bucks for each case. It wasn't that he couldn't win a case, it's that all of his clients were absolutely and unmistakable guilty. Without a shot at a solid law firm, he'd never be able to prove the value of his true calling. That's the light in which we see James McGill in Season One. He's not yet the Saul Goodman that we know, but that base foundation is being laid. In 'Breaking Bad,' it wasn't until the end of the series that we knew how far Walter White would go. But we already know where Slipping Jimmy McGill is headed. The tension and intrigue of the story of 'Better Call Saul' lies in telling us how he got there. And believe it or not, it's quite a bit more elaborate than you might expect.
Season One is all about James McGill trying to make it on his own, trying to make a name for himself. Slipping Jimmy comes out to play from time to time, but he's definitely not proud of it. That's not who he wants to be. He wants to be successful at … something. Anything. Why? Because of Chuck.
In the first episode we meet Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), James' brother. Chuck was the ideal big brother, the guy that James modeled himself after. He had it all. He did everything the right way, the first time. Because he became a successful lawyer, James wanted to be a successful lawyer. But a curious illness knocked Chuck out of the game. Now, while not trying to build his own career, James is left taking care of his home-bound bigger bro. Being a caretaker is a pretty grand job of its own, making it hard for James to focus on his own.
Chuck is a fantastic side character that's full of dimension – but he's not alone. 'Better Call Saul' offers more than one perfectly fleshed out side character. Along with Chuck we get Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), James lady friend who's an up-and-coming lawyer at the firm that Chuck used to co-own. As hard as Chuck and Kim have tried, they haven't been able to land James in the firm. A thick resentment for said firm exists within James because of it. When James isn't taking care of Chuck or trying to build his own career, he tries to burn down the image of the establishment.
Adding to those new characters is a very familiar face. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who we came to know in 'Breaking Bad' as Gus Fring's muscle, plays a crucial role in nudging James McGill to Saul Goodman in 'Better Call Saul.' The spin-off may carry Saul's name in the title, but Mike's role is just as important. His origins are briefly and vaguely mentioned in 'Breaking Bad,' but just as we get with Saul, we get to see how Mike made his name. 'Breaking Bad' SPOILER: After Mike's fate in 'Breaking Bad,' it's just as great to see him again in 'Better Call Saul' as it is to see Saul. End SPOILER.
For anyone missing the glory days of 'Breaking Bad,' I couldn't be happier to tell you that it's not over. There's more story to tell within the 'Bad' universe. Although 'Better Call Saul' doesn't feature our favorite meth-cooking criminals, it's got more than enough of our B-team antihero crooks. Thanks to the return of brilliant writers, crew and showrunners, 'Better Call Saul' is already a perfect companion series to 'Breaking Bad' after one short ten-episode season.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony has placed the first season of 'Better Call Saul' on three Region-free BD-50 Blu-ray discs and included a code for Digital HD versions of each episode. All discs are housed in a packaging that mirror those of the 'Breaking Bad' three-disc sets – within a slightly fatter-than-usual blue keepcase that features a hard plastic hinge arm that holds two discs and the third disc resting on the back inside cover. Episode and disc details have been printed on the back of the cover art sheet and can be seen through the case. Three of the ten episodes are uncensored and feature content that was censored when originally aired. A nice cardboard slipcover is included and nothing but a Sony Home Entertainment reel runs before the main menu.
'Better Call Saul' arrives on Blu-ray with an absolutely flawless 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. While 'Breaking Bad' was shot on 35 mm film stock, 'Saul' is brought to us by way of the 6K source formatting of Red Epic Dragon cameras - and it's absolutely gorgeous when transfered over to standard Blu-ray. The only reoccuring issues with all six sets of 'Breaking Bad' Blu-rays was occasional banding. Knowing this, I put an extra keen eye in search of it. Thanks to the magnificent source quality (and likely the fact that less episodes are housed on each disc), along with any of the other compression flaws - aliasing, crushing, noise and artifacts - banding has been eradicated, making 'Saul' the best-looking TV series that I've seen on Blu-ray.
The series' cold open features a harsh black & white introduction that brings an awesome grayscale. As meant to, combined with the visual imagery, it comes across as cold, isolated and alien. The 'Bad'-like montage that starts it off is chock full of bright detail. The pores and individual moustache hairs on Saul's face can be seen. Six minutes later, when we transition to the color-filled world of 'Better Call Saul,' nothing changes. All of the rich detail remains consistent throughout the remainder of the series. The pinstripes suits of tight-ass high-class attornies are loaded with finite details and sharp thin lines, while those of James appear to have a cheaper, older quality.
Presumably due to the similar shooting style, the clarity of the image is very similar to that of 'Breaking Bad,' only without the film grain and with an extra dose of sharpness. The earthy desert hues are replaced with a popping and vibrant color palette that's mildly exaggerated and adds to the cheap-and-sleezy lawyer look. Black levels are rich. The darkest of black shadows that transition into well-lit areas feature perfectly smoothe grading where the banding of 'Bad' would have been. For examples of this, see the underground car garage scenes with James and Kim, as well as the lamp-lit nighttime interior scenes with James and Chuck.
There's literally no room for improvement in terms of video quality.
'Better Call Saul' hits Blu-ray with the same perfect five-star quality 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio that came out of the last two 'Breaking Bad' Blu-rays. Just like the video quality, I can't think of a single scene that could have been enhanced aurally.
Possibly the strongest aspect of the audio is the effects mix. All environments - conventional for sound effects or not - feature some sort of sound that makes the space come to life and feel like reality. Without a lick of dialog, a scene set in a parking structure will feature detailed audio in one channel or another that adds a layer of realism to the viewing experience. The movement of the sounds is also effectively natural. A backfiring car may pop on one side of the room, while seamlessly echoing to and through the other channels. So much attention was placed on details that even off-screen elements, like an elevator, carry effective environmental sounds. We may never see the elevator that's off-screen to the right, but when the elevator car arrives at the unseen door, the ding rings out clearly from the proper channel. This extra attention is riddled throughout the season, layer upon layer, and really boosts the effectiveness of the mix.
Just as 'Bad' did with the latter seasons, the vocal mixing is knock-out. Not only is dialog projected clearly, but it carries a resonance and depth that makes it a delight to listen to - epecially Mike's deep voice. From time to time, voices and dialog are also playfully used like environmental effects to make settings come to life. Be it a bingo game within a retirement home or a bustling law office, background chatter is used make the mix come to life.
Music is used in a fashion nearly identical to that of 'Breaking Bad.' Although the style of the scoring is quite different from that of 'Bad,' fantastic music mostages with excellent song selections are used to make montages cool again.
Until recently, no prequel or spin-off has ever been as great as the original - but television producers and showrunners are eagerly working to disprove that idea. FX's 'Fargo' kick-started the movement last year and now AMC is following suit with the 'Breaking Bad' spin-off 'Better Call Saul.' Featuring a completely different tone and style, while featuring the same characters and embracing the same humor, it takes the slimy lawyer and no-bullshit henchman from 'Bad' and gives them extremely rich, personal and thought-out origins and backstories. After ten episodes, it has proved that there are still new, albeit different, stories to tell within the 'Bad' universe ... and I love it. Both the video and audio qualities are flawless and impressive, and the Blu-ray is chock full of special features that carry the same high quality of the extras that the 'Bad' discs carried. This is a major win for television and home entertainment, a series that I highly recommend to anyone with a taste for likeable anti-heroes, unpredictable writing and the best television programming currently airing.