This is not meant to be a sour review of “Better Call Saul,” which returns for a second season Monday night on AMC. It’s not even really intended as an intervention. Mostly it’s just a friendly reminder that, you know, the clock is ticking.
“Better Call Saul” is best described as Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s prequel to the incomparable “Breaking Bad,” which is among the best TV dramas – the best, I’d wager – of the past decade or so. “Better Call Saul” is also a protracted and intentionally less-manic character study, looking at the life and misadventures of one James M. “Jimmy” McGill (Bob Odenkirk), an Albuquerque lawyer who will, it’s safe to assume, one day morph into Saul Goodman, the go-to attorney for the local ne’er-do-wells and an essential character in “Breaking Bad,” which takes place several years later.
Season 1 ended with at least some indication that Jimmy had come to a jumping-off point above the pit of moral decay, realizing that the straight-and-narrow path (and legal career) was impeding his true nature – and youthful past – as Slippin’ Jimmy, a seasoned grifter.
It’s puzzling, therefore, that the first two episodes of Season 2 walk that moment back a bit. Jimmy winds up taking the job offer from the fancy Santa Fe, New Mexico, law firm that he had triumphantly turned down – a gig arranged for him at the end of last season by the firm where his psychologically troubled brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a partner. The two firms are working on a big case involving a retirement-home operation that scams residents – another thread that carries through from last season.
Does any of that grab you? Viewer response has been mixed. “Better Call Saul” is an interesting case study in patience, taking its sweet time while countless other high-quality dramas rush to be devoured at the binge-watching buffet.
Fans of “Breaking Bad” have done our part here, coming to the new show with open minds and an eagerness to revel in Odenkirk’s prodigious talent in this role (for which he was nominated for an Emmy last year). “Better Call Saul” is full of the protracted and even loopy storytelling techniques that Gilligan and company mastered with “Breaking Bad” – minus most of the payoff. Individually, the scenes can be wonderful. That perfect, seedy Albuquerque vibe is intact; it’s the same world but very decidedly not the same show. We were cautioned about that.
The saving grace so far in Season 2 is the steady, mildly menacing presence of Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks, who also got an Emmy nom for Season 1), another classic “Breaking Bad” character, able to dominate his world from the cashier booth of a municipal parking lot. While Jimmy makes one more go at success, Mike keeps us connected to characters like Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) and a nice little subplot of inept criminality.
So far, the show has felt as if it is working its way up to some larger froth – but is it? If so, the sooner it gets there, the better.
“Better Call Saul” (one hour) returns Monday at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.