'Better Call Saul' Launches Its 3rd Season, Still The Best Drama Series On TV

Apr 10, 2017
Originally published on April 10, 2017 1:41 pm

You don't need to know all about Breaking Bad, and the meth-making, drug-dealing former schoolteacher Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, to enjoy Better Call Saul. This spinoff series more than stands on its own — and, as TV spinoffs go, is the best in the business since Cheers begat Frasier.

Come to think of it, it's even reinvented and refreshed its story line the same way the sitcom Frasier did — by giving the main character a brother, and making sibling rivalry and similar occupational interests a key to the new show's central dynamic.

In Frasier, Kelsey Grammer, as Frasier Crane, was given the gift of David Hyde Pierce, who played his high-strung younger brother Niles, a fellow psychologist. In Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk, as Jimmy McGill, is given the gift of Michael McKean, playing the even higher-strung older brother Chuck, a fellow lawyer.

This addition to, and expansion of, the Breaking Bad canon has been one of its great triumphs — and one of its best secret weapons. Chuck is a moral, by-the-book attorney, while Jimmy is fine cutting corners.

As we've learned over the past two seasons, Chuck has disapproved of Jimmy and his approach — and, at the climax of last season, tricked Jimmy into confessing to having doctored some documents and secretly taped that confession.

The new season premiere, written by series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and directed by Gilligan, picks up shortly after that, and we quicky see that the tension between the brothers has not lifted.

There's a similar tension between Jimmy and his new law partner, Kim, played by Rhea Seehorn, who also dislikes Jimmy's unethical antics. Kim represents another great new character, and performer, added to Better Call Saul, but there also are some classic carryovers. Foremost among them is Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, a former cop turned private eye and all-around fixer, who was one of the standout players in Breaking Bad.

This season, Mike is following a trail that leads, by episode two, to a fast-food chicken place that Breaking Bad fans will recognize, and be delighted by, immediately. (I said you don't have to know Breaking Bad to enjoy Better Call Saul, but you'll enjoy it even more if you do.)

When Mike sends Jimmy into Los Pollos Hermanos to order some food and act like a customer, Breaking Bad fans are waiting like crazy for a glimpse of Gus Fring, the chicken maven and drug kingpin played by Giancarlo Esposito.

And that's exactly what we get of Gus, at first — just an out-of-focus glimpse, in which we never seeing his face. It's like TV foreplay, but eventually, in that frighteningly polite voice, Gus quietly confronts Jimmy, who's rooting through one of the restaurant's garbage cans for possible evidence.

Season three of Better Call Saul, like the previous seasons, opens with a black-and-white sequence set after the events of Breaking Bad, when Saul, once Jimmy, is now hiding in plain sight as a man named Gene, the manager of a Cinnabon store in Omaha.

The music played during the scene is the Nancy Sinatra hit "Sugar Town," which is perfectly suited to a place with so much icing and sweetness. But Jimmy/Saul/Gene doesn't belong there, and avoiding his past by toiling there will work for only so long.

My dream, and my hope, is that eventually Better Call Saul will finish its flashback story of how Jimmy became Saul, and switch to its post-Breaking Bad story of what happens to the poor guy next. It could be a prequel, and a sequel, in one — giving us not only a great origin story, but also a fabulous new chapter.

But since Better Call Saul is the best drama series on TV, just as Breaking Bad was in its time, I'll happily settle for whatever time frame, and episodes, I can get.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. After the major success of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad," series creator Vince Gilligan teamed with another of the show's writer-producers Peter Gould to make a spinoff series called "Better Call Saul." Set mostly in the years prior to the "Breaking Bad" storyline, it follows the shady lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk who in "Breaking Bad" went by the name of Saul Goodman.

"Better Call Saul" the spinoff series launches its third season tonight telling more of the origin story of Jimmy McGill who eventually becomes Saul Goodman. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: You don't need to know all about "Breaking Bad" and the meth-making, drug-dealing, former school schoolteacher Walter White played by Bryan Cranston to enjoy "Better Call Saul." This spinoff series more than stands on its own, and as TV spinoffs go, it's the best in the business since "Cheers" begat "Frasier." Come to think of it, "Better Call Saul" has even reinvented and refreshed its storyline the same way the sitcom "Frasier" did by giving the main character a brother and making sibling rivalry and similar occupational interests key to the new show's central dynamic.

In "Frasier," Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane was given the gift of David Hyde Pierce playing high strung, younger brother Niles, a fellow psychologist. In "Better Call Saul," Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill is given the gift of Michael McKean, playing the even higher strung older brother Chuck, a fellow lawyer. This addition to and expansion of the "Breaking Bad" cannon has been one of its great triumphs and one of its best secret weapons. Chuck is a moral, by-the-book attorney while Jimmy is fine cutting corners.

As we've learned over the past two seasons, Chuck has disapproved of Jimmy and his approach. And at the climax of last season, tricked Jimmy into confessing to having doctored some documents and secretly taped that confession. The new season premiere written by series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and directed by Gilligan picks up shortly after that. Jimmy finds an old childhood book in Chuck's house and gets uncharacteristically sentimental until Chuck abruptly breaks the spell.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Maple goes into the mountain, and she meets the king of the brownies, and he gives her some kind of super delicious jelly and holy crap - 1912.

MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) Yeah - belonged to Grammy Davenport (ph). She wrote her name in it. She was reading that to her school kids the year the Titanic went down.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Damn, and mom read it to me.

MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) I read it to you. You don't remember.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Yeah. Yeah. I do now that you say it. Yeah. What was I? Like 5 or 6?

MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) You had this weird night light that you were so crazy about was...

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) It was Daffy Duck.

MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) It was a Daffy Duck rip-off with this weird, red bill.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Mouth - bill, yeah.

MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) Yeah, And it used to get so hot we thought it would burn the house down, but I wouldn't let anybody touch it.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Yeah, that's - you got a great memory Chuck - the red bill and everything. Hey. What was the name of that little girl that lived three houses up from us?

MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) Jimmy...

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) She had, like, a peach hair cut, and she was always in the dirt, always dirty. I liked her.

MCKEAN: (As Chuck McGill) Jimmy, Jimmy, don't think I'll ever forget what happened here today, and you will pay.

BIANCULLI: There's a similar tension between Jimmy and his girlfriend and law partner Kim played by Rhea Seehorn. She dislikes Jimmy's unethical antics as well. She's another great character and performer that was added at the start of "Better Call Saul." But there also are some classic carryovers. Foremost among them is Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, a former cop who was one of the standout players in "Breaking Bad."

This season he's following a trail that leads by episode 2 to a fast food chicken joint that "Breaking Bad" fans will recognize and be delighted by immediately. Hey, I said you don't have to know "Breaking Bad" to enjoy "Better Call Saul," but you'll enjoy it even more if you do. When Mike sends Jimmy into Los Pollos Hermanos to order some food and act like a customer, "Breaking Bad" fans are waiting like crazy for a glimpse of Gus Fring, the chicken maven and drug kingpin played by Giancarlo Esposito. And that's exactly what we get of him at first, just a glimpse, out of focus or only partly in frame, never seeing his face.

It's like TV foreplay. But, eventually, in that frighteningly polite voice, Gus Fring lives and talks again, as he quietly confronts Jimmy who is rooting through one of the restaurant's garbage cans for possible evidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) Can I help you?

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) My watch clasp is lose. It falls. I tried to reach it.

ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) Oh, I'm sorry. Allow me.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) You know, they say a nice watchband is as important as the watch. That's what I get for cheaping out (laughter).

ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) Let me find it for you.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Where heck is it?

ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) Oh, don't worry. If it's in here - ah, there it is. May I clean this for you? We have alcohol wipes.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) No, it's been in worse places. Thank you. That was very nice of you.

ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) No problem. It's my pleasure. Is there anything else I can do for you?

BIANCULLI: It's all character. It's all mood. And if you've been following Saul Goodman's story all this time, it's brilliant. Season three, like the previous seasons, opens with a black and white sequence set after the events of "Breaking Bad" when Saul, once Jimmy, is now hiding in plain sight as a man named Gene, the manager of a Cinnabon store in Omaha.

The music played during this scene is the vintage Nancy Sinatra hit "Sugar Town" perfectly suited to a place with so much icing and sweetness. But Jimmy, Saul, Gene - none of them belongs there and avoiding the past by toiling there will work for only so long. My dream and my hope is that eventually "Better Call Saul" will finish its flashback story of how Jimmy became Saul and switch to its post-"Breaking Bad" story of what happens to the poor guy next.

It could be a prequel and a sequel in one and give us not only a great origin story, but a fabulous new chapter as well. But since "Better Call Saul" already is the best drama series on TV, just as "Breaking Bad" was in its time, I'll happily settle for whatever time frame and episodes I can get.

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the creation of an American demagogue. My guest will be Jeff Guinn author of a new book about the cult leader Reverend Jim Jones who in 1978 led about 900 of his followers to kill themselves by drinking cyanide-laced punch. Jones developed his following as an itinerate preacher, faith healer and social activist. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.