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TV Review: "Better Call Saul" Season 1, Episode 1: "Uno"
"Uno" Is A Welcome Invitation To Step Back Into The World of "Breaking Bad" That Is Never Short On Surprises Or Creative Ingenuity
Vince Gilligan, "Breaking Bad" series creator, writer and producer of several "X-Files" episodes along with lead "Breaking Bad" writer Peter Gould have, as Saul Goodman would say, laid a golden egg. When much of the viewing public and rabid fans of the source series bawked at the idea of an expansion series, let alone a prequel, many doubts were cast. Most assumed that Gilligan would trot out another series merely based on the unanimous acclaim of "Bad" and that it would act as a way for him to milk it and turn it into a product. But, I am happy to report that the Pilot EP of "Better Call Saul" is every bit as irreverent as it mixes the pitch black comedy elements of Bad while also standing completely on its own as a worthwhile tale with a character that many initially dismissed as just comic relief. Bob Odenkirk's impeccable performance that never seems tired or completely over the top is just a joy to behold and you could very well tell that he is once again having the time of his life as an actor.
Even though Gilligan is in the works with creating and show running another series called "Battle Creek", the pilot episode unfolds as a genuinely Gilligan creation with a lot of the trademark meticulous aesthetic qualities that "Bad" possessed. From the black and white cold opener to the little details such as Saul's tacked on paper nameplate on his office door, to the early 2000s flip phones. From the outset, it seems that the creative team wanted to preserve the world of "Bad" in all its distinctive glory but have the series go in bold directions with a character that is virtually the polar opposite of Bryan Cranston's Walter White. In fact, this episode brings to mind the first seasons of Breaking Bad that played more for comedy and whimsy and less as a hard-boiled crime drama. Only time will tell with how dramatic "Saul" could really get as it aims to plumb the rich depths of its lead character and offer the captivating twists and turns we all know it is now capable of.
The acting is uniformly excellent in this episode. Three dimensional turns from prolific character actor Michael McKean, who appeared in most of the Christopher Guest-helmed films like "A Mighty Wind" and "This Is Spinal Tap" really shines as down on his luck lawyer and brother of Saul's Chris McGill who, at the start of this episode, finds himself brought down by financial burdens and in distress. The interplay between both actors is a real master class and McKean shoulders his role confidently as you can't help but empathize with him. His character does his best to maintain his integrity despite having run out of options and going to Saul for help out of desperation. The show hints here that it will be a truthful character study in much the same way that "Bad" was. Jonathan Banks, who played Saul's right hand man/bodyguard Mike Ehrmantraut in the first series shows up briefly and foreshadows the business relationship that both he and Saul will later find themselves in for better or worse. With his baritone voice and blank stare, his scene was brief but memorable.
The last 25 minutes contain some of the most brilliant staging and plotting I have seen in any show in recent memory. In order to embark on his transformation from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, he stages a risky scenario that could win him his first two private practice clients. His rousing speech that effectively severs his ties to his previous law firm leaves Saul somewhat destitute. It is in this moment that the crackerjack plot unfolds as he is able to convince two 20-something skateboarders that they will earn $2000 in a pre-meditated injury lawsuit. Winning their trust with his brilliant speech was the easy part but when things backfire and they do in rather glorious fashion, the audience and story payoffs are big. The chase scene is alone worth its weight as the skateboard dudes trail a smashed up wagon driven by a "helpless" older Spanish women. And, if you are a TRUE FAN, the very end is smashing with an awesome character reveal that is sure to leave you astonished. Watching the whole sequence brought to mind Walt's earliest schemes with trying to weasel his way into former chemistry student Jesse Pinkman's life with the same amount of wily intent and knowing the full extent of the ramifications if things don't go according to plan. It is an excellent entry-point for "Saul" that is able to raise the stakes appropriately but not too drastically and introduce some fine material to be embellished further in the series.
Stay tuned for my subsequent review on Episode 2 titled "Mijo" which airs tonight and all future EPs that this reviewer will be proud to cover.