Better Call Saul

Remember Saul Goodman, the sleazy lawyer from Breaking Bad?  Most people who saw the original will remember him with a certain distaste, maybe a smile.  Well he now has his own series, or to use the technical terminology employed by broadcasters, a “prequel spin-off.”

Better Call Saul was his strap line in BB, but here we get the full back story.  Except… here he is called Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), presumably before the events that lead to him reinventing himself as Saul – maybe that story will come in series 2 of this show.  However, he does bring one or two characters BB fans will recognise, especially the stoical hit man and ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and psychopathic drug dealer Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz.)

Fair to say that this is an appealing show for several reasons, one of which is that where most American lawyers are portrayed on screen as smooth, suave, rich and powerful, this one is the complete antidote: he begins life as a short con operator in Cicero, Illinois, unlike elder brother Chuck (Michael McKean, whom many will recognise as an older version of Spinal Tap’s guitarist David St Hubbins.)   Chuck “worked his ass off” to be key partner in a middling law firm called Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill (HHM) but took time off because of a rare case of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.

Younger brother Jimmy works in the mail room, gets a law degree by correspondence course to try to win the respect of his big hitter brother (unsuccessfully), so starts to develop his own law practice – in spite of a crippling aversion to appearing before the court, or indeed in handling any client negotiations.  Yes, he has a line of schmoozy patter but without any of the skill or perspicacity, and certainly without a car you would want to show off to your clients.

This is not to say that Jimmy is without skills, and indeed his own endeavour and perseverance finds him a whopper of a case that is bigger than he and, as it turns out, bigger than HHM can handle.  This brings him money and smart suits, apparently an offer of partner designate in another law firm at the end of series 1, yet almost all of this series is taken up by Jimmy’s attempts to jump from frying pan to fire.  He also has a few friends on his side, especially Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), a lawyer working for HHM – but certainly not snide managing partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian.)

A running subplot concerns how ex-cop Mike got to be a parking attendant with family issues and a profitable sideline as investigator and hard man (don’t call him “Uncle Fester” – he doesn’t like it.)  You know from the start that Mike will be tied into Jimmy’s future, so don’t be fooled by the parking lot drone (who these days would be replaced by a machine!)

Whether you would employ Jimmy is another matter, though the regular and none too bright embezzlers and on/off clients who appear through series, the Kettlemans (Jeremy Shamos and Julie Ann Emery), demonstrate the two working in partnership and using some ingenuity to work things to their own advantage.

This storyline also demonstrates the running internal debate within Jimmy between Jimmy the shyster who wants to get away with whatever he can and Jimmy the lawyer, trying to do “the right thing” and earn an honest buck without being disbarred or running criminal sidelines.  He only succeeds in this struggle by the skin of his whitened teeth, largely though “elder law” – that is, persuading the not-so-wealthy older citizens to buy wills.  Nice idea, but not the way to make millions.

When you’re at the bottom of the tree, life is a struggle – and doubtless there are many such down-at-heel lawyers around every country who lurch from one crisis to the next without the wherewithal to make a killing (metaphorically at least.)  Unlike most of those players, the fictional Jimmy will work his way up to being, if not a major league corporate lawyer then certainly one holding his own and getting business.  Perhaps he deserves to win out, for sheer graft and chutzpah, even if he isn’t the best in town.

That you end up sort-of-sympathetic with Jimmy and Mike is a fair achievement by creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould.  This is neatly-plotted and scripted drama with a nice line in underplayed irony.  It could easily have been a disaster, but to the credit of all involved it comes across as refreshing, humble, worthy and, best of all, entertaining.  Definitely worth series 2, though how many series you can get in before Breaking Bad intervenes remains to be seen.


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