Better Call Saul 2 starts February

The brilliant Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul returns to Netflix next month (Feb 15 in the US, the next day in all other territories). In the first series of creator Vince Gilligan’s drama we saw Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman (the excellent Bob Odenkirk), attempt to build a relationship with his lawyer brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whom he looks up to, only to be badly betrayed. Is Saul now about to break bad himself?

Bob Odenkirk in AMC's second season of Better Call Saul

Legal high: Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul 2

The trailer above hints that that may be the case. Part of the joy of the first series was getting reacquainted with old faces such as Mike Ehrmantraut (what a terrific actor Jonathan Banks turned out to be) and chilling figures, such as Tuco (Raymond Cruz). While Better Call Saul – which is made by AMC in the States – is compelling as a dark and gripping drama in its own right, Breaking Bad fans will be interested to hear that Aaron Paul, who play Jesse in BB, has been hinting again this month that he may making a cameo in Saul. ‘Hopefully, I will be involved,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know when that will be. I’m not going to say anything more, but I’m absolutely open to the idea. Hopefully, it happens.’ Meanwhile, anyone hoping to binge on Saul will have to pace themselves. It’s being shown the old-fashioned way – in 10 weekly instalments.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut in AMC's Better Call Saul 2

Mean streets: Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut

Better Call Saul — Killer TV No 26

HERE’S the latest in our series of Killer 50 crime dramas…

AMC, 2015–

‘Let’s just say I know a guy… who knows a guy… who knows another guy.’  – Jimmy McGill aka Saul Goodman

Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, Michael Mando

Identikit: the Breaking Bad prequel/spinoff following the early years of conman-turned-lawyer Jimmy McGill


logosWHO WOULD have thought writer-producer-director Vince Gilligan could have created a second richly rewarding series when he spun-off this drama from Breaking Bad, following the latter’s finale in 2013? The idea of a new show based on BB‘s shyster lawyer Saul Goodman, a bit of light relief amid Walter White’s mayhem in the original, seemed to promise little more than a diverting sitcom about the scamster’s courtroom shenanigans and chintzy lifestyle. But Better Call Saul actually delivered a whole lot more – thrills, laughs and pathos. Gilligan explored the hinterland of this supporting character and came up with a superb drama in its own right. For starters, Saul Goodman was, you will remember, a name adopted because the guy sensed clients would prefer a Jewish lawyer. We find out how he went from being Jimmy McGill, or conman ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’ of Cicero, Illinois, to a qualified lawyer in Albuquerque, eventually handling Walter and Jesse Pinkman. This is all set in 2002, six years before BB. Along the way are frightening moments as we renew acquaintances with nutters such as Tuco (Michael Mando), find out that Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonanthan Banks returns to the role) had his reasons, and meet Jimmy’s mentor and brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean). This relationship is the emotional heart of the story, and it’s a heartbreaker that makes Jimmy’s propensity to break bad himself seem most understandable. Vince Gilligan again shows his eye for the dark and surreal details amid the everyday and conjures up scenes of blinding tension. And at its heart, Bob Odenkirk proves himself a compelling leading actor in a difficult role demanding a performance that switches from slick and funny to vulnerable in quick succession. It was nominated for seven Emmys, and picked up two Critics’ Choice Awards (Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks). It will be returning for a second series in February 2016.

Classic episode: A standout is Five-O (episode 6), which actually focuses on Mike Ehrmantraut, showing him to be a hardcase with a heart, as well as revealing Jonathan Banks’s secret side as a bloody good actor.

Watercooler fact: Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman in BB) was in ‘serious talks’ about an appearance in Better Call Saul, but this all came to nothing.

Why Breaking Bad is way better than Downton Abbey: four reasons

Cooking up a storm – Jesse and Walter. Photos: AMC, Ben Leuner/AMC

It’s on the cover of Radio Times, a whole edition of the Daily Mail‘s Weekend magazine was devoted to it and the trailers are all over the internet. The fanfare for series three of ITV1’s Downton Abbey is loud and unavoidable. And America is not immune, with the period drama being the only British contender in next Sunday’s Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series.

It’s so Bad, it’s great
But also in contention is a darker, funnier, more unpleasant and far superior series that is a mystery to most British viewers – Breaking Bad. Now in its fifth series in the US, this crime saga has only had a couple of bouts of exposure when series one and two were shown on FXUK and 5USA, and then hastily dropped.

And why not? It’s a show about a drab chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston from family comedy Malcolm in the Middle. He lives in an ugly part of America and is diagnosed with lung cancer. He then turns to crime to provide for his family by illegally producing methamphetamine with an irritating former student of his (Aaron Paul).

‘Worst idea for a show’
The studio honcho to whom the show was pitched described it as ‘the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life’.

Thankfully, he backed it anyway and AMC, who make series such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, started producing it. Breaking Bad is far more original and brilliant than anything being made in the UK – Downton Abbey included – and has gone on to win 26 television awards, including six Emmys already. Here are the reasons why it’s in the same class as The Wire and The Sopranos.

And the good news for UK viewers is that Netflix is showing it and it’s available from Lovefilm.

Despite all the hardware, Hank is a nice guy

1 Brilliant drama
Breaking Bad is gimmick-free – it’s not high-concept, big budget or full of desperate plot twists. It is simply an engrossing drama about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The characters resonate with viewers because there is a level of truthfulness and reality about them. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) goes on a journey into darkness with initially good – if not legal – intentions. Diagnosed with cancer, the poorly paid chemistry teacher tries to leave some financial provision for pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), who has cerebal palsy, by producing high-grade meth. The characters often surprise us. Apart from everyman-turned-mobster Walter, there’s his gormless accomplice Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), whom we eventually see is emotionally damaged but probably more decent than Walter. There’s Walter’s brother-in-law, macho DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), whom we come to admire as a brave, tender soul. And there are so many fine scenes, such as Walter inappropriately trying to downplay the seriousness of an airliner crash that he’s caused before dismayed teachers and pupils at his traumatised school. It’s a morally complex saga, with good people sliding into bad actions through misguided loyalty and a thirst for survival. Death, birth, tenderness, tragedy, wit – it’s got everything.

2 Visually superb

Business is booming – the Breaking Bad cast

It begins with a man – Walter – in his underpants, yelling and hurtling through the desert in an RV. It’s a typically off-kilter scene in a narrative that flashes back and forwards and makes for a dazzling narrative. Surreal visual touches – a one-eyed plush toy floating in Walter’s pool for several episodes, men crawling along the ground to a shrine – constantly throw the audience off-balance, and some are like premonitions, only explained weeks after initially cropping up. The setting of bland, wide-open Alberquerque, New Mexico, with its crappy malls and fast-food outlets, adds to disorienting, dreamlike quality of the series.

In the dark, but not for long – Skyler

3 Humour amid the darkness
Breaking Bad can induce nervous giggles – such as during farcical episode 8, series 2 when Badger almost incriminates the wrong bald guy on the park bench while hoodwinking the DEA – or horrified guffaws – such as the moment when addict Spooge has a monumentally heavy ATM machine that he’s stolen and been trying to open, tipped onto his head by his angry girlfriend. Then there’s shyster lawyer Saul Goodman, who, as played by Bob Odenkirk will forever define the species. His naked self-interest and cynical legal scams are beautifully played. He’s the kind of guy who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’, and becomes a great asset to Walter. And when he dumps Jesse as a partner because Walter has re-entered the game, he just says, ‘That’s the way of the world, kid. Go with the winner.’

4 Great acting

Jesse and Walter are now watched over by Fring (Giancarlo Esposito)

Having sold the unlikely prospect of a series about a chemistry teacher with lung cancer to the studio, creator Vince Gilligan (who produced The X Files) then had to convince them that Bryan Cranston – the guy from that family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle – could take the lead in this dark, violent drama. His powers of persuasion are clearly awesome, but were completely vindicated by the shifty-eyed, powerful presence of Cranston. But he’s not alone here as a terrific actor. In the tremendous episode One Minute in series three, Aaron Paul has a blistering scene in hospital when he splutters out how much he hates Walter. But this episode then tops it with a heartrending scene between Hank and his wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), in which macho Hank apologies for not being the tough guy he always thought he was. And when it comes to menacing,  Raymond Cruz as drugged-up cartel psycho Tuco – oh my god, just don’t go there!

Breaking Bad is not a show for people who want to goggle at pretty costumes and luscious settings. It’s original, artfully directed on 35mm film, edgy and horribly violent at times.

It’s also the best drama on television right now – bar none.

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