Hey, remember when the guy who created one of the most influential shows of the last quarter century decided to make a spinoff show but do it in a presumably cheesy manner? Remember when we all laughed and thought it wouldn't work, or at least would be erratic in terms of content? Boy did we have egg on our faces, didn't we?
Such was, more or less, the initial impression when Vince Gilligan decided to extrapolate one of the characters from his hit show Breaking Bad and decided to make a second show set in Albuquerque. The decision set in motion the desire to make a show with Walter White's de facto lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, Mr. Show) and set things as a prequel show of sorts, running adjacent to Breaking Bad and Walter White. We see the goofy jokes, and the almost white trash nature of Saul's roots, starting as small time con man Jimmy McGill as he makes his way up the ranks of the cheesy ambulance chasing lawyer that we knew, laughed and loved when we first saw him.
The story differs from what we know about the characters in Breaking Bad, and Walter White's slow degradation from jovial high school teacher to sociopath and habitually deceiving meth dealer. Saul shows us Jimmy's attempts to try and fly an honest path, only to have many a roadblock thrown his way, be it friends or family. It takes what we think we knew about Saul in the first show, and carves out an identity very quickly on its own, using a minimum of characters from Bad (feared geriatric muscle man Mike (Jonathan Banks, Wiseguy) is the only regular on the show), and when they do appear they are pleasant surprises, enhancing an existing storyline with their presence and to a degree, their nostalgia.
The show's first season came and went, surpassing expectations for it, and with its expositional legs under it, went a little harder in its second season. Jimmy still has problems fitting in at the law firm where he works, so he joins another law firm and clashes with one of the partners there (played by Ed Begley, A Mighty Wind). He still takes care of his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean, This is Spinal Tap) and develops a relationship with Kim (Rhea Seehorn, Whitney). Mike doesn't intertwine with Jimmy too much in the season, but his storylines are good just the same, as we see some various characters previously known and somewhat feared this season.
A good portion of Season Two is spent on the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck, and seeing Odenkirk and McKean trade these dramatic punches, increasing in damage as they go along, is fascinating. When you throw in Jimmy's early season interactions with Clifford Main (Begley), it's almost like show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were taking bets from people on how they could make a show with actors from the Christopher Guest ensemble work (to say nothing of the star who was once in the hilarious ‘Mom and Pop Sex Shop' sketch on Mr. Show), and they are not only collecting all of the winnings but are doubling down on the stakes. Odenkirk and McKean in particular have a knack for cutting to the humanity and vulnerability of their characters and each other, and in the season finale, you see their back and forth play out at a compelling peak, along with the heartbreaking swerve at the end of things.
Gilligan and Gould's knack of finding dramatic acumen in actors with long-established comic roots is wonderful, and just as wonderful is their ability to give the floor to previously unrecognized performers, who ultimately deliver when given the chance. Where we know that Jimmy is trying to live some sort of normal life despite his past transgressions, Kim has the normal life, knows of Jimmy's propensity to bend the rules, and allows herself to not be impacted by his judgment, though it is on a sliding scale. In a way, she is playing a female Walter White, one who rationalizes the corruption, but we have no idea what's going to happen to her.
Perhaps the best part of Better Call Saul is that where Breaking Bad had a sense of direction for the person carrying the bulk of the show, Saul can also go a variety of ways, before we get to, presumably, the point where the universes of both shows connect and the world implodes on itself, or something. Gilligan and Gould took the challenge of making a presumed comic relief character into a flawed one despite his optimism, and the result is seamless in quality and storytelling. On its own merits, people would have come around to Better Call Saul sooner or later, but the entry drug that is Breaking Bad makes the enjoyment of the show and the characters in this spinoff all the more pleasant and at times devastating. Damn you Vince and Peter for making such great material.The Blu-ray:
Ten episodes in Season Two, spread over three discs, all presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and use the AVC codec for the Blu-rays, with the overall results a stunner. Looking into the ABQ evenings, the black levels are deep and inky and present a fine contrast. Compare them to the neon lights of a hot dog place Jimmy and Kim eat at for instance, and the greens of the light and the heat are vivid. In brighter sequences colors are reproduced faithfully, and image detail is sharp, be it in facial pores or in larger exterior shots where asphalt of the road is discernible, or the desert brush and sand. Gilligan-helmed shows continue to look gorgeous on Blu-ray.The Sound:
DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless surround for each of the episodes and like the video, look excellent. Dialogue is consistent throughout, though the show packs in larger moments of dynamic range, such as when Mike stopped a truck using a homemade spike strip. The show's score sounds clean as can be, with directional effects and channel panning present throughout the show's episodes to convey a convincing immersion level. These are some of the better-produced Blu-rays out there technically, and definitely the best amongst television shows.Extras:
Gilligan has been friendly to the physical media buyer in the past, and Season Two of Better Call Saul is no exception. Commentaries abound on every episode, usually comprised of Gilligan and/or Executive Producer Peter Gould. The director and/or writer of the particular episode is included, along with a dusting of the cast members, all of whom appear on one track or another. Things like character motivation are discussed, but smaller easter eggs within scenes are mentioned (yes, the hummingbird in frame in the first episode was real). Gilligan gets any of his track participants involved often and shares his own recollections, such as sitting around and watching Begley mention stories involving Buddy Hackett. Most of the tracks are jovial and have at least one or two fun pieces of information, either on the show or on that episode, and worth checking out.
The extras are on Discs Two and Three though there are some quick bits throughout the season, such some of the Davis & Main ads Jimmy shot (4, 3:51) on all three discs. "HSC Beaches and Peaches" (3:36) is the most disturbing video where someone has to sit on a pie. Once you know the context of this, you'll know what this is. Disc Two has "A Complicated Relationship" (8:05), where Odenkirk and Seehorn (along with other cast members and the crew) talk about their characters and how they work with one another. "Constructing Davis & Main" (8:50) looks at the set design for the first half of the season, and the gag reel (6:28) includes a charming introduction to it, and a swear jar, of sorts. "The Takedown" (6:07) looks at the work Mike did in subduing a couple of menacing hombres during an episode. "In Conversation: Jonathan Banks and Mark Margolis" (31:30) is on Disc Three and is a treat, as the older New York based actors discuss how they rose through the ranks and some of the jobs they took, acting or otherwise. It's a fun discussion. "Landing Fifi" (3:46) looks at a World War II airplane, and "Building the Shot" (4:45) looks at the introduction in Episode 9 of the season. "Settling the Score" (7:25) looks at the show's music.Final Thoughts:
Everyone loved the initial kitsch of this Breaking Bad spinoff and the show quietly put together compelling moments of emotional gravitas in its first season. The roots are in the ground and taking hold, and the fruit from the tree starts to bloom in its second season, with polished performances by established cast members, and welcome turns by others previously known for other genres. Two encouraging things about Better Call Saul is that this season forces itself into the discussion amongst best shows currently on television, but also makes the viewer wonder what the ceiling for it truly is. With the upcoming holidays, set aside the time to check this out if you haven't yet.