Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, hits UAE TV screens

We talk to Bob Odenkirk, the star of Better Call Saul, about the eagerly anticipated Breaking Bad prequel.

Bob Odenkirk, left, as Saul Goodman, and Better Call Saul showrunners Peter Gould, centre, and Vince Gilligan. Lewis Jacobs / AMC / AP Photo
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There is no shortage in the New Mexico desert, it seems, of crusty unfeeling reptiles who lurk just out of sight until they can take you down with a spurt of venom – be they crooks or rattlers.

But the most dangerous sidewinder may well be Saul Goodman, the slippery lawyer in the crazy suit, as Better Call Saul, the madly anticipated prequel to Breaking Bad, debuts at last on Sunday.

The buzz around this legal drama could deafen a hornets' nest. Esquire magazine has already declared it "better than Breaking Bad". Given the adoration heaped on that show, that's high praise indeed.

The AMC network ordered a second season of 13 episodes – three more than the first season of 10 – before the show’s US premiere last night. If this isn’t must-see TV, then we’ve all been bamboozled big time.

The Saul Goodman we came to know and love in Breaking Bad – with his loopy TV commercials, his patriotic "We the People" wallpaper and his giant inflatable Statue of Liberty atop his tacky Albuquerque strip-mall office – would have been nothing more than a throwaway joke, or cheap comic relief at best, were it not for the frenetic acting and seductive charisma of the actor Bob Odenkirk. He convinces us all that "I know a guy who knows a guy who knows another guy" who can get any imaginable dirty deed carried out.

But Saul doesn't start off being Saul in this new series from Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan and co-showrunner Peter Gould. They opted instead to turn the clock back to 2002 and trace the strange, and at times painful, evolution of Jimmy McGill, a small-time lawyer hungry for his destiny as he hustles to make ends meet on the twisty path to becoming Saul Goodman.

“It’s a superhero origins story,” says Odenkirk, describing how he finally got a handle on his character as a series star. “The superhero is Saul and his special power is his mouth, an agile mind and some stones. And instead of a cape, he has a yellow tie and green socks.”

Naturally, the surreal desert vistas of New Mexico from Breaking Bad, almost a "character" in their own right, are back to haunt our HDTVs. But emotionally, Jimmy's world is very different from Saul's.

He is a struggling lawyer who honestly wants to do good as he defends the disreputable while caring for his ailing brother Chuck, an upscale lawyer played by the comedy great Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap). Chuck has everything Jimmy wants, including a posh office, while Jimmy works out of his beat-up car or, worse, a phone booth.

He will face some anxious times on the road to becoming Saul Goodman – Better Call Saul is not all laughs and smarmy doubletalk.

"It's total drama, man," Odenkirk told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's 85 per cent drama, 15 per cent comedy."

“Jimmy is a mess,” says Gilligan, “[but] every so often, you’ll catch a glimpse of the man who eventually becomes Saul ­Goodman.

“Jimmy still talks his way out of sticky situations, even if the results are far from perfect. Of course, he isn’t yet a criminal lawyer when we first meet him. In fact, he’s trying to be the ­opposite.

“And certainly the point is not should we be good or should we not. I guess the point is it’s sometimes very hard to be good. I think Saul wants to be [good], but he also wants to cut corners when he can. You see that in the first episode. That’s a lot of the fun for me in the writers’ room.”

One treat for Breaking Bad fans will be the return of the show's beloved "fixer" Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), who will work alongside, and often against, Jimmy. It won't be love at first sight, by any means, as the two get off to an antagonistic, slow-burn start.

Also expect some non-linear storytelling, says Gould, to highlight the cause and effect of Jimmy’s actions.

“We’ve given ourselves the liberty and we have history with these characters, so we have given ourselves the freedom to go back and forth in time.”

Gilligan says: “I don’t know what the world’s gonna think, but I could not be more proud to be a part of it.”

While you’re waiting for the premiere, check out the crazy fun at www.bettercallsaul.com, the real-world website where Saul pitches his shady legal prowess.

Who is Bob Odenkirk?

Don’t be surprised if Bob Odenkirk’s face triggers a bout of déjà vu. We’ve all seen that expressive mug before – but remembering exactly where can be a challenge.

The 52-year-old's most recent brush with fame began with a three-episode stint as a guest star on Breaking Bad's second season in 2009. He made such an impact that his lusciously corrupt lawyer, Saul Goodman, graduated to become a permanent fixture on the drama the following year.

But long before his comic-spin cycle as a money launderer for blue-meth chef Walter White, he had been imprinted on our minds many times over the past three decades in a slew of film and television roles.

A native of Illinois, raised in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Naperville, Odenkirk is a self-confessed fan of cerebral yet simple humour who credits Monty Python's Flying Circus, Steve Martin and Woody Allen as his strongest comedic ­influences.

But it was his writing that landed him a spot in the big leagues, on the staff of the American comedy institution Saturday Night Live. He wrote sketches for the show from 1987 to 1991, alongside the likes of Robert Smigel, Conan O'Brien, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Rock and Chris Farley (for whom he created the late star's most famous character: Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker).

We caught our first glimpses of Odenkirk the actor on TV through his work with his pal Ben Stiller on The Ben Stiller Show in 1992, and in a recurring role on Garry Shandling's acclaimed The Larry Sanders Show as Larry's agent Stevie Grant. He also popped up sporadically on Roseanne and Tom Arnold's The Jackie Thomas Show.

Odenkirk's reputation and visibility took a major leap forwards into cult status with Mr Show, the HBO sketch-comedy series he co-hosted with fellow stand-up and Arrested Development star David Cross for 33 episodes over four seasons between 1995 and 1998, as they introduced now-famous comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Jack Black and the 24 star Mary Lynn Rajskub in their formative years.

Odenkirk also delivered more mainstream turns as a guest star on shows such as Dr Katz, Professional Therapist; Seinfeld; NewsRadio; Just Shoot Me!; Joey; Curb Your Enthusiasm; Arrested Development; Entourage; Weeds; How I Met Your Mother; Everybody Loves Raymond; The Office; and Fargo.

Film fans, meanwhile, may grin as they recall Odenkirk's quirky bit parts in movies such as Wayne's World 2, The Cable Guy, Waiting for Guffman and Monkeybone, as well as more substantial roles in Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003) and Nebraska (2013).

Better Call Saul will be broadcast at 10pm on Sunday on OSN First HD

artslife@thenational.ae