'Better Call Saul' could ring up its own legacy

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

“Better Call Saul” has the weight of expectations: To be a worthy spinoff of a modern TV classic, “Breaking Bad,” and not an “AfterM*A*S*H” or “Joey,” the ill-fated successor to “Friends.” That fact is not lost on its producers.

Saul Goodman, the smarmy lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk and introduced in Season 2 of AMC's “Bad,” is the lead role in a prequel that explores his roots and is set in 2002, six years before Saul met Bryan Cranston's Walter White. The 10-episode first season, scheduled for November, has been delayed to early 2015, but the series has already been picked up for a second, 13-episode season.

Odenkirk, interviewed on the set in Albuquerque earlier this month, says that viewers will see a different, more sympathetic side to Saul than they saw on “Breaking Bad.”

“If you look at Saul, you might say he's selfish and careless about other people, but like anybody, if you get to know him, his motivations aren't that different from a lot of people's,” he says. “You'll see a lot of things that made him who he is, and you'll re-look at his situation in “Breaking Bad” and see that he's not such a bad guy.”

Because of his trust in creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, Odenkirk wasn't apprehensive about taking on the role. “These guys don't do anything thoughtlessly or on a whim,” he says. “I was pretty sure that if it ever got to the stage of, ‘Here's a contract,' they would've killed themselves thinking about it.”

But that doesn't mean the spinoff was easy. “I thought it was going to be kind of easy going forward, (but) we didn't really know who this guy is at all,” Gilligan says. “He was a really interesting supporting character.” There were limitations, owing to the fact that Saul is designed to lead up to the Saul we later meet on “Bad”: “We know where this guy is going. We can't, for instance, in the first episode, have him lose an arm or an eye.”

And there were issues of tone: “We assumed from the get-go, it'd be very funny, it'd be a comedy,” Gilligan says. “What surprised us over the last six months is how serious it can get.”

One goal, says Gould, who created the character, is to “bring him to that point” where “Bad” fans first meet him, “and it's a challenge, (because) we know that's not the name he was born with. And one of the questions we ask ourselves a lot was, ‘What problem did being named Saul Goodman solve?'” Adds Gilligan: “It's like being really into this Rubik's Cube.”

Jonathan Banks has been named a series regular in the new show, reprising his role as Mike Erhmantraut. Michael McKean plays Saul's brother, Chuck; Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn and Michael Mando are also in the cast. And while it's “possible” characters such as Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) could resurface, don't look for a reunion, Gould says.

“We're trying to make something that stands on its own, that has entertainment value, that's not just seeing a series of old favorites,” he says. “It's not the series equivalent of a clip show.”

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