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Will Better Call Saul Be a Worthy Successor to Breaking Bad?

Creator and star promise a new and "unique show"

Adam Bryant

It's OK to approach AMC's Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Leaving aside the fact that television's history is littered with spin-offs that failed to live up to their predecessor's glory -- for every Frasier, there are four Joeys -- Saul, which premieres Sunday at 10/9c, could also be viewed as an attempt by AMC to milk the most out of the Breaking Bad franchise at a time when the network's stockpile of original series is decidedly low. Either way, the question remains: Does this show need to exist?

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It was a question even the show's creators didn't know how to answer at first. "It was something that I wrestled with personally," executive producer Peter Gould tells TVGuide.com. "I was very concerned. 'How is this going to reflect on Breaking Bad? How is this going to work?' So I, at least mentally, put the brakes on it."

But Gould, who created greasy lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, was eventually won over after much discussion with Breaking Bad creator and Saul co-showrunner Vince Gilligan. What pushed him over the edge was not only the chance to explore the backstories of both Bob Odenkirk's Saul --who on this series is still known as Jimmy McGill -- and Breaking Bad favorite Mike (Jonathan Banks), but also the introduction of Jimmy's brother Chuck (Michael McKean).

"Once we started talking about that guy, I suddenly got very excited because I felt that we were getting insight into who the guy behind Saul Goodman was," Gould says. "On Breaking Bad we saw someone who was skating over the surface. Saul, for the most part, had no skin in the game, so he was able to be a little bit buoyant and he was able to see things from the 10,000-foot view and look down and understand how everything went together. But Vince and I both felt that wasn't enough to make a show about. Once we had Chuck, and we started talking about the history between these two brothers, I thought, 'This is a real three-dimensional person.' The Mike side of it got me very interested in the more kinetic potentials in the show, but the Chuck side of it told me that there was going to be heart."

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Indeed, Jimmy is a character worthy of a viewer's sympathy. Jimmy is the black sheep who's trying to impress his brother -- who, despite now being sidelined by a strange, debilitating illness, is a highly regarded attorney who helped build a successful Albuquerque law firm -- by leaving his days as a con artist in the past and starting his own practice. Unfortunately, Jimmy has no clients and his work as a public defender isn't enough to dig him out of massive debt -- a combo that forces Jimmy to consider returning to underhanded schemes.

"It's a struggle inside him constantly," Odenkirk says. "He feels like his talents fit in a more ethically challenged world, but he also sees his brother who's very successful being an upstanding lawyer. And he thinks, 'Why can't the world make room for me?' The specific things that he does are particularly valuable and appreciated in the underworld and yet he's trying to avoid that. He wants the older brother's approval. He wants to get that guy to give him a thumbs up and back him, and he can't seem to do it."

Adds Gould: "The Jimmy McGill who we meet in Better Call Saul is a searcher. He's a guy who's trying on different hats to try to figure out which one is going to fit. He's got so much energy, and so much facility, but somehow, he doesn't really seem to know who he is. Maybe the life he's chosen to lead is not really suited to his abilities."

Naturally, the relatively innocent scheme Jimmy cooks up to land a big fish client quickly spirals out of control and gets Jimmy tangled up with some unsavory customers. The deeper he gets, the more he has to rely on his seemingly only friend: Kim (Rhea Seehorn), an attorney at Chuck's firm.

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"She's clearly somebody who Jimmy feels comfortable with, and who he cares about, but it's very hard to put a label on their relationship," Gould says. "There is respect, there's affection, but whether they're together romantically is hard to say. She's certainly the person who seems to be most familiar with Jimmy." Adds Odenkirk: "She certainly sees the good in Jimmy, and he's been having a hard time finding anybody to do that. They're both a little bit stuck. They both haven't made their bones in their respective fields yet. So, they're both striving and wanting to do the right thing, but they're in a difficult situation. And they're horny for each other."

But it won't be long before Saul forms a relationship with Mike, who begins the series as a Jimmy's courthouse tollbooth nemesis. "It's a friendly battle between two guys who begrudgingly respect each other and need each other even," Odenkirk says. "We're like a very angry Laurel and Hardy who aren't afraid of physical confrontation. He's the muscle, I'm the mouth, and there's no brain. But you're going to see Mike's past... and it's a really dramatic, intense, sad, cool story that they're going to tell you. That's some of the most dramatic moments in this whole series."

Gould believes viewers will be equally compelled and surprised by the history of Saul Goodman. "Frankly, I didn't give a hell of a lot of thought to Saul's backstory -- he sort of emerged fully formed in that first Breaking Bad episode," he says. "We came up with all sorts of funny ideas about what his home life was because we never saw that. But I have to say, once we started on this show, almost all those ideas ended up going out the window, because what we found was this is a guy who has a lot more to him. There's a lot more depth. There's a lot more pain than we ever dreamt of on Breaking Bad."

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On the flip side, viewers shouldn't necessarily think they know where Better Call Saul is destined to end. After all, the show's incredibly striking opening sequence -- which we won't spoil here --hints that the show isn't just about Jimmy's journey to becoming his alter ego. "We know from the very first episode that maybe the beginning of Breaking Bad isn't the end of this show," Gould teases. "One of the things that we took from Breaking Bad was the idea of being able to zip back and forth in time. In a lot of ways, the time structure on this show is even more complex. We've really given ourselves freedom to jump back and forth in this guy's life."

As for comparisons to Breaking Bad, they're impossible to avoid. Although Saul does share the beautiful visuals of its predecessor as well as a basic overall plot arc, it is its own animal. "The journey that Jimmy seems to be set out on in the first episode is definitely a journey towards moral ambiguity, and arguably, darkness," Gould acknowledges. "But he starts off with nothing but good intentions, and I think how he gets to where he's going is going to be a very different kind of journey than the one that Walter White took."

And if that's not good enough for Breaking Bad lovers, Odenkirk has some advice. "For the viewers who love Breaking Bad so much that they can't imagine watching a show about Saul Goodman: Do you have Breaking Bad DVDs?" he says with a laugh. "You can play those, and I promise you that they will be just as good the fourth and fifth time you watch them if not better.

"We don't think we can beat the phenomenon of Breaking Bad or the unbelievable perfection of that show," he continues. "This is a unique show. It's probably a little more offbeat. We hope that with our honest effort, we've made a good TV show. That's what we shot for."

Better Call Saul premieres Sunday at 10/9c on AMC before moving to Monday nights at 10/9c.

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