Every now and then it is necessary to remind people that cable television has become the defining storytelling medium of the first part of this century. True storytelling artists are always drawn to the medium that allows them to ask the big questions while reaching the largest audience. At one point, the novel was that medium. At another, it was film. For the past 15 years, it's been TV.
Breaking Bad was and is part of the evidence for this assertion. The radical change wrought upon Walter White (Bryan Cranston) after a cancer diagnosis became a spectacular narrative about values, crime and class in America. News that Breaking Bad would merit a spinoff was discombobulating. Could it possibly succeed?
Better Call Saul (Sunday, Monday, AMC, 10 p.m.) is it and it is, on the evidence of the first two episodes, a work of genius. It is serious-minded, funny, compelling, visually glorious and radiant with meaning. It is about a crack-up, the collapse and rebooting of a moral compass.
The opening scene is a stunner. In a long black-and-white sequence we enter a mall and are enveloped in its air-conditioned, antiseptic environment.; it could be anywhere but you sense it is the United States. The camera leisurely glides through the stores and coffee shops and comes to rest at a Cinnabon, one of those bland, ubiquitous places serving cinnamon rolls and other baked goods. A guy is rolling dough at a lazy, deliberate pace. It looks like it might be Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), that mesmerizing sleazy lawyer from Breaking Bad. Certainly, there's a pair of eyes, not just the camera, watching him.
Then it is back to six years before the events of Breaking Bad. (A visual vagary is the use of black and white for the present and startling colour palettes for the past.) We meet Saul before he was Saul – James (Jimmy) Morgan McGill, a stressed, ambitious but fatally under-employed Albuquerque lawyer. He takes cases as a public defender and seems to be on the verge of collapse. Among the many irritations that beset him is a daily spat with Mike Ehrmantraut (Johnathan Banks), a parking-lot attendant. Yes, that's Mike the Enforcer, long before he was the Enforcer on Breaking Bad.
What we get is a rich portrait of Jimmy, a sad sack who has an ocean of potential inside him and yet is on the brink of going awry. We meet his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a partner at a big law firm who had to quit working because of a mental illness. It's Jimmy's job to care for Chuck and sue his brother's former employer. We meet two teenage scammers, kids with skate- boards who run into moving cars and demand compensation. It's a glorious piece of dark comedy, redolent of Breaking Bad's defining black humour tinged with serious questions of morality, big and small.
Let's just say, too, that By the end of the second episode (airing Monday), there's a criminal with whom Saul is entangled, one Nacho (Canadian Michael Mando, best known for Orphan Black), and there is the distinct stirring of a strangeness in the New Mexico sunshine that you feel is going to be both intense and comical in a hallucinatory way.
There was reason to be skeptical about Better Call Saul. Reason to suspect that Breaking Bad would be sullied by a spinoff that didn't quite deliver. But this is clearly a new work, not a dilution at all. Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad and is working here with Peter Gould, who created the original Saul character, is moving forward, ever more adept at the nuances of powerful television storytelling – from the lustrous visual to the subtle inclusion of allegory in the most seemingly comic-book of story progressions. Odenkirk is magnificent in the main role and the series is one to savour from those astounding opening minutes onward.
Also airing this weekend
The Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) returns. The episode, What Happened and What's Going On, apparently opens immediately after the final scene of the fall season finale – the burial of Beth (Emily Kinney), with her sister Maggie (Lauren Cohan) profoundly distraught. Then Rick presents a new plan for survival: The group will attempt to travel to Richmond, Va. A plan that will, the audience knows, be deadly, brutal and as unforgiving as the show itself.
The 57th Annual Grammy Awards (Sunday, CBS, City, 8 p.m.) is what it emphatically is – hair, fashion, music and celebrating what is already commercially established as popular music. Performers this year include Katy Perry, Madonna, Kanye West, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga and AC/DC. That's just a partial list. The draw, if your thing is music, not just hair, fashion and celebrity, is the possibility of unique combinations and mash-ups. It goes on for hours and overlaps with The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul. So plan your Sunday accordingly.