There have only been two spin-offs that I felt have not just matched the original show in which they were taken, but surpassed them by leaps and bounds. The first is the sit-com Frasier, which was so much better than Cheers, but the second is probably one of the best-crafted shows I've ever seen, Better Call Saul.
While AMC's original Breaking Bad series showed chronicled the slow descent of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from sympathetic desperation into stone cold evil, Better Call Saul, has been achieving the opposite. It took the character created for what first seemed to be written as a broad stereotype for the purpose of comic relief — the fast-talking dirt-bag lawyer Saul Goodman — and evolved him into one of the deepest thinking, emotionally versatile, and increasingly sympathetic and tragic anti-heroes on television today, Jimmy McGill.
This fourth season's opener, "Smoke," starts out with the aftermath of the suicide of Jimmy's older brother Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), a formerly successful lawyer and intellectual giant whose own descent into mental illness left him a physically, mentally, and emotionally debilitated shell.
Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) normally a high-energy type of guy, spends much of this first episode in silent contemplation, some in grief, some in anger and some in an emotionless fog, all while the making the viewer desperate to know what he's thinking. His own life choices, mixed with the continually crappy decks he's being dealt are starting to shape the man who appears care about absolutely no one or nothing in Breaking Bad. Part of us wants to watch the process out of sheer gory curiosity, while the other part wants to scream at him to get it together and run away. It takes more than just a comic side character to whip up those kinds of emotion in the viewer. When he does deliver the episode's closing line to Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), it stings with a finality of someone who is done being pushed around. Fabian's Hamlin is still a great antagonist, and even with his emotional performance, we just can't seem to take him at his word. I don't trust him one bit.
Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is pretty much playing the role of being Jimmy's support shield this first episode, but she'll have a bigger role to play in future episodes, I'm sure. Not knowing what became of this one ray of light in Jimmy's life makes watching her relationship with him and her own story that much more frustrating. It's much like waiting for a slowly growing balloon to burst. You know what's coming, just not when.
Mike Ehrmantraut's (Jonathan Banks) story is also taking shape, but the more we know about him, the more we want nothing more than for him and Walter White to never cross paths. They will.
Finally, there's the escalating battle between drug lords Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), of which everyone knows is leading up to an explosive conclusion. Despite the destination being fixed, the journey is still a story untold, and it is getting good.
One character who is fascinating to watch is Nacho Varga (Michael Mando). From the very first episode, we know he's too smart and eerily soulful to be just a hired thug for Tuco Salamanca, but that doesn't mean you don't want to mess with him. His own inner conflict between right and wrong is so absorbing, I'm hoping we see an episode or two devoted primarily to his angels and demons. Breaking Bad viewers only remember hearing Nacho's name uttered by Saul during his first appearance on the show, leaving a blank slate for his own future.
Saul's fate, however, is still a mystery. As the opening scene from the first three seasons showed a depressing existence of obscurity and paranoia for Jimmy, this fourth season opener takes us dangerously along with him into the mouth of madness, or possibly something much more sinister.
This is just one of those shows where if any element gets lazy the entire project will collapse. Fortunately, everyone involved in Better Call Saul is not only fully invested in the characters, but in making sure the audience remains completely absorbed in their fates, as well as entertained without having their own intelligence insulted.
The writing is tight and brilliant. This is the television drama of a page-turner. It is not always a cliff hanger, but you don't want the story to stop. Whether the latest episode leaves you feeling angry, happy, shocked or heartbroken, you'll want to tune into to see what happens next.
Mostly, you have to give creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould a long, slow clap of appreciation for not only taking a chance on this show, and showing us how a combination of good storytelling and theater can take a minor secondary character and turn him into a leading role who we still haven't completely figured out. They had us coming from for the laughs, but staying for the story...which is far from over.
If you haven't been able to catch up, this is one series that is worth putting aside a few weekend evenings for some binge parties. If you just need a refresher on the past three seasons, let the cast do it for you: