'Better Call Saul' takes deep, funny dive into American life as seen from backroom of nail parlor

He lives and works in the cramped, cinder-block back room of a nail and waxing salon in an Albuquerque, N.M., strip mall.

He drives a car so trashed-out, junky-looking and old that it's impossible to determine its make.


And he practices law from the men's room in the county courthouse, on public defender cases handed to him like scraps of food to an annoying dog. When he leaves, he almost never has the validation stickers or cash to get his car past a surly parking lot attendant.

Welcome to the world of Jimmy McGill, a young lawyer with a bad wig and the gift of gab, an archetypal American con man on his way to becoming Saul Goodman of the "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul."


Finally, the prequel to the epic TV saga of Walter White arrives with a two-night premiere on AMC at 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday. And as superb a performance as Bob Odenkirk delivers in the role of McGill, it's the writing and storytelling of creators and show runners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould that dazzle from the first frame.

This is the kind of series that justifies all that "Golden Age of Television" talk in the media ether these days. And it isn't just razor-sharp writing and fine acting. "Better Call Saul" promises to be one of those rare series, like "The Wire," "Breaking Bad" or "The Sopranos," that goes behind all the phony American Dream talk to show us the real price of survival in a hyper-capitalistic America — the kind of thing to which novels and great stage dramas once laid exclusive claim.

If that sounds too grand for a TV show, try this: You can even see bits and pieces of 20th-century dramatist Arthur Miller and 19th-century satirist Mark Twain in this semicomic, darkly dramatic character study of a young man on the make in a sunbaked, low-rent land of criminals, lawyers, liars, drug dealers, nail technicians, psychotic killers and thieves.

Playing with the quasi-mythic formula of superhero origin stories and doing some deft time shifting, Gilligan and Gould open the series in a period of time after the end of "Breaking Bad." It features the man known as Saul Goodman in that celebrated series now living in snowy Omaha, Neb., and working at a Cinnabon shop in a mall.

The opening is filmed in stark, bleak black-and-white, and the motor-mouth lawyer of "Breaking Bad," who is now reduced to mechanically mixing dough for sweet rolls and mopping the floor, says not a word for the first five minutes or so of the pilot. His existence is one of silence, drudgery and fear of the past catching up with him.

The dreary apartment Goodman now calls home is just as plasterboard-flimsy and neon-cheap as the world of the mall where he works. By the time he mixes himself a stiff drink and sits down in front of the TV, you want to scream, "Say it ain't so, Saul."

But it is. And Gilligan and Gould further rub our noses in the wasteland of Goodman's world, post-"Breaking Bad."

But then he plops a cassette in the VCR, and we hear one of the unmistakably cheesy TV ads that Saul Goodman starred in on "Breaking Bad," a time when his client list included Walter White, high school chemistry teacher turned big-time drug dealer.


The cassette takes viewersout of black-and-white Omaha and back to Albuquerque circa 2002, six years before the start of "Breaking Bad," when Goodman was named McGill. The world here is almost as bleak in its own way, but at least it's in color. This is the setting for "Better Call Saul."

Watch closely as McGill psyches himself up in a men's room mirror before delivering his closing argument in a ridiculously hopeless case. Pay attention as he holds his breath and licks his lips, waiting in desperate anticipation for an accountant accused of embezzling $1.6 million to sign the form that will make McGill his attorney of record. Zero in on the look of defeat on his face as he receives his paltry payment from the court after going all out for three incredibly stupid and gross teen clients.

This is Arthur Miller country that Gilligan and Gould are traveling with McGill — a land where the harder you try to earn a living and get ahead, the further down the system grinds you, until anything resembling professional dignity is a memory. At least Willy Loman had some good years in his younger days as a star salesman, we were told. Not so for young Jimmy McGill as a lawyer.

And his luck is even worse once he turns to scamming. Still, you can't help but smile at the enthusiasm, hope and energy he brings to his hustles.

Here McGill is a descendant of the 19th-century confidence man of the American Southwest. Think of the folklore character Simon Suggs and his credo, "It's good to be shifty in a new land." Johnson J. Hooper, the creator of Suggs, was a direct influence on Twain, who continued the celebration of such characters in his tales of life along the Mississippi.

That's McGill's high-end literary pedigree, but he is also related to the lower-end lawyers of today who buy ads on local TV stations telling viewers how committed they are to looking out for the rights of the little guy. We laugh at production values that are sometimes impossibly low, but the message that we need someone to protect us against big corporations, insurance companies and people with money resonates.


McGill's scams never seem awful or nasty, in part, because of the playfulness and optimism Odenkirk brings to the role. But when his con jobs go wrong, they instantly take him to the dark underbelly of Albuquerque criminal life. And that's where the series starts to catch fire Monday night — after a pilot that lacks a life-and-death sense of dramatic urgency.

Is "Better Call Saul" as good as "Breaking Bad?"

After seeing the three episodes made available by AMC, I can say it's different in one major way. And that difference initially makes it a little less appealing to me.

There is no strong sense of middle-class life here as there was with the White family in "Breaking Bad." What I loved about that series was the sociological statement it made about White having to use his knowledge of chemistry to make illicit drugs to pay medical bills after being diagnosed with cancer. "Breaking Bad," a work of fiction, exposed the vulnerability of middle-class American life like no newspaper, magazine, online series or documentary came close to doing during its run.

Jimmy McGill might look middle class in his one working suit and loafers by day. But the guy tossing and turning on a fold-out couch in the storage room of a strip-mall nail salon is miles away from that status.

Maybe, in the end, McGill's lack of middle-class status will prove to be a good thing. Maybe McGill's grand ambitions versus his down-and-out lifestyle will make this series even smarter about social class and the downsizing of the American Dream than "Breaking Bad."


Either way, Gilligan and Gould got me on board with the premiere episodes.

I want to see how far Jimmy McGill climbs — or sinks — in weeks to come on his road to becoming Saul.


"Better Call Saul" premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC.