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Back For Season 5, 'Better Call Saul' Keeps The Fun And Narrative Going


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday and Monday, the AMC network presents the two-night Season 5 premiere of "Better Call Saul," the companion series to "Breaking Bad."


BIANCULLI: "Better Call Saul" wasn't on my top 10 list last year, but that's only because it wasn't on TV last year. The series, starring Bob Odenkirk in the role of the shady lawyer who first appeared on "Breaking Bad," took the year off. But now "Better Call Saul" is back for Season 5, which is how many seasons "Breaking Bad" ran when it premiered back in 2008. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, co-creators of "Better Call Saul," already have announced that Saul will end after Season 6, which means the end is in sight. And when the end was in sight for "Breaking Bad," Gilligan ended up finishing that series so perfectly that it ranks for now as my favorite TV drama ever. But boy, "Better Call Saul" is close. In "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan set out to tell a very complicated story showing the slow journey of a meek high school science teacher, Walter White, who becomes a meth-manufacturing kingpin and killer. Bryan Cranston starred and was astounding, and the character's journey had a definite ending, which suggested that the "Breaking Bad" universe had reaped all its rewards - not even close.

If you've yet to visit this particular world, here's the shortest way to describe it. Gilligan and company, having ended the story of Walter White, began playing with time and supporting characters to keep the fun and the narrative going. They took the character of Saul Goodman, played by Odenkirk, and put him at the center of "Better Call Saul." It was another transformation story just like "Breaking Bad," showing how a character does increasingly bad things, except this was an extended flashback going back a few years to show how a young lawyer named Jimmy McGill came to take on the slimy alter ego of Saul Goodman. This season on "Better Call Saul," Jimmy finally has made the name change official as he tries to justify to his girlfriend and fellow lawyer Kim, played by Rhea Seehorn.


BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Kim, I can't go back to being Jimmy McGill. Jimmy McGill the lawyer is always going to be Chuck McGill's loser brother. I'm done with that. That name is burned. This is a fresh start. This is how I move forward, and I like it.

RHEA SEEHORN: (As Kim Wexler) Sorry. It's - I just can't see it.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) It's OK. You will.

BIANCULLI: But "Better Call Saul" - and here's where it gets mind-blowing - is more than just a "Breaking Bad" prequel. It is that, and it's a joy to spend time with characters who didn't survive that sister series. But "Better Call Saul" also is a sequel, showing segments filmed in moody black and white that follow the character after the events of "Breaking Bad," when Saul had gone into hiding and adopted yet another name. It's a place and a fate that Saul Goodman hinted at in one of the last episodes of "Breaking Bad" when he and Walter White were about to go their separate ways.


ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Hey. I'm a civilian. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm nobody's lawyer. The fun's over. From here on out, I'm mister low profile - just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I'm lucky, month from now, best case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You're part of this, whether you like it or not.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I'm sorry. I don't think so.

BIANCULLI: In "Better Call Saul," he's doing precisely that but always looking over his shoulder. And in this season's extended black-and-white opener, he gets approached and cornered by a cab driver who recognizes him from his previous life.


ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I just want you to admit it.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I don't know what you're...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Sure you do. Just say it.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I really don't know what...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Come on. Come on. Come on, man. Say it.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Better call Saul.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What? I can't even hear that.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Better call Saul.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Once again, and do the point.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Better call Saul.

BIANCULLI: Think of how good and how rare this is. If you think of "Breaking Bad" as the present, then "Better Call Saul" presents both the past and the future. And last year, Vince Gilligan wrote and directed a standalone Netflix movie called El "Camino: A Breaking Bad Story." That movie followed another "Breaking Bad" character, Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman, from the moment he exited "Breaking Bad." It was another continuation of the narrative and another wonderfully entertaining trip back to the future.

Jesse even tracked down the person he thought was the man who had helped Walter White and Saul Goodman establish new identities, but the man, played by the late Robert Forster in one of his final performances, wasn't playing along at first, not even when Jesse was dumping tons of cash on the guy's storefront counter.


AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Here you go - 125,000. Come on, man. You know why I'm here.

ROBERT FORSTER: (As Ed) I can't say I do, no.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Yeah, you do. You're the guy. Yeah, you do. You're the guy. Look; I am 96% sure that you are the guy, so why don't you just, like, admit it?

BIANCULLI: In "Breaking Bad," "El Camino" and "Better Call Saul," all these stories and characters intersect and overlap. If you've seen "Breaking Bad," you'll love some of the faces that show up early this season on "Better Call Saul." Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are making history here - different series that combine to tell a story, its prequel and its sequel. I hope there are even more glimpses into the future to come when "Better Call Saul" is over, but here's one future glimpse I can provide. At the end of this year, "Saul" will be on my top 10 list.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, our guest will be journalist and lawyer Adam Cohen. He's the author of "Supreme Inequality" about the Supreme Court's 50-year shift from the Warren Court, which handed down landmark decisions regarding criminal justice, voting and welfare rights, to a court which favors corporations and the wealthy. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALVIN RED TYLER'S "PEANUT VENDOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.