'Better Call Saul' breaks away from 'Breaking Bad'

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Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman or, as he was first known, Jimmy McGill, in his early days as a lawyer.

TV continues to move forward - not in terms of originality, but rather in bravely splicing together existing genres.

So far this season we've had Galavant (historical/satirical/musical), Forever (police procedural/fantasy), Empire (soap opera/musical/gangsta lean), and Utopia (reality show/social experiment/keg party).

Now it's time for Better Call Saul (premiering 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC and assuming its regular slot the following night: 10 p.m. on Mondays). This captivating curiosity piece is both a prequel and a spin-off of Breaking Bad. That puts it into a category previously confined to laundry: the pre-spin.

Bob Odenkirk returns as enterprising Albuquerque defense lawyer Saul Goodman, the best friend a felon can buy. Only the show takes place in Saul's rancid salad days, before he adopted the Jewish pseudonym to sharpen his professional image, when he was still going by his given name, Jimmy McGill.

As our story begins, Jimmy is an ambulance chaser of the lowest order. His sustenance comes from vending machines. His hoopty is a canary-yellow clunker held together with Bondo. And his office is a broom closet . . . off the laundry room . . . in the back of a cut-rate nail salon. Living the dream.

Actually, it's a little misleading to say the story begins there, because creator Vince Gilligan, as he did in Breaking Bad, likes to ricochet his protagonist through time.

So we get to see Jimmy before he took up the law - when he was still a cheap hustler in Cicero, Ill. And thanks to one of the most evocative establishing segments in TV history, we get to see him post-Walter White, after Saul has "disappeared" himself and is living in another state with yet another name. It's hard to say which of these bookends is grimmer.

Better Call Saul, then, chronicles this lost soul's journey from nothing to nowhere, as he learns the hard way that you "can't underestimate the sleaziness of human nature." In these first episodes, he's still learning where the moral boundaries are, and how he can skirt them.

There are holdovers from the Breaking Bad crew, most notably Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). Although it seems rather contrived to relegate this former Philly cop and future Gus Fring hit man to being a cranky parking attendant at the Justice Center just so he can be in Jimmy's immediate orbit.

The primary addition is Michael McKean (Lenny on Laverne & Shirley) as Jimmy's brother, Chuck, who was a partner in a ritzy Albuquerque law firm until he had a meltdown. Now, he lives like a paranoid Amishman, hysterically avoiding all electrical devices.

While Jimmy may end up in situations reminiscent of Breaking Bad - like bound and gagged in the desert - you should be prepared for the fact that this is a very different series, with a far more comedic and absurdist tone.

About all Jimmy has going for him, as he scrambles at the bottom of a slippery totem pole, is his power to persuade. He can talk a fish out of the water. He's a character, all right, a bizarrely beguiling one, haunted by his shreds of decency and tormented by his turpitude.

Better Call Saul may turn out to be a rarity: a TV prequel that works. The medium is comfortable setting up origin stories derived from major movies. Recent examples include Hannibal, Bates Motel, and Gotham.

But television has always found it far trickier to regress its own material.

Take Ponderosa, which captured the early years of the Cartwright clan. Daniel Hugh Kelly (Hardcastle and McCormick) played Ben, a widower with three boys. Hoss was portrayed by Drew Powell, currently doing a bang-up job as the henchman Butch on Gotham.

The executive producer of Ponderosa was the creator of Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman. So it probably made sense that Hop Sing (Gareth Yuen) was a better holistic herbalist than he was a cook.

The source material, Bonanza, accumulated 430 episodes. Ponderosa folded after 20.

Seeking to exploit the popularity of Kevin Sorbo's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Young Hercules went out on a limb, casting a skinny, floppy-haired 17-year-old former Mouseketeer named Ryan Gosling to play the demigod.

Teen Herc was in training at a warrior academy run by a centaur. His best friend, the scampish Iolaus was played by Dean O'Gorman, most recently seen as Kili, the heartthrob dwarf in The Hobbit trilogy.

The show survived two seasons.

Star Trek: Enterprise was set more than a century BK (Before Kirk). Scott Bakula played the constipated-looking Captain Archer, who in one memorable installment fell hook, line, and sinker for a giant snail. (In his defense, the slug did trick him.)

The Enterprise's anemic journeys lasted 98 episodes, by far the least of the five Star Trek series - with the notable exception of the original '60s show, the most influential TV program ever to get canceled after three seasons.

The foolhardy Carrie Diaries tried to find life in the high school years of Sex in the City's Carrie Bradshaw character. Talk about beating a dead nag.

Not since Keri Russell's Felicity had a show relied so heavily on the hair of its lead actress (in this case AnnaSophia Robb) to secure an audience. The Carrie Diaries was yanked after two severely truncated seasons.

The exception to the prequel jinx is Smallville, a hearty perennial. It gave us the early years of Clark Kent, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and Larry Larr (OK, I made that last one up; I'm a fool for alliteration). TV trivia fans may remember Smallville as the show that brought The Dukes of Hazzard's John Schneider back to prime time, playing Clark's farmer "dad."

When Tom Welling started as Clark, he was 24, and already a little too mature to be believable as a high school student. By the time he finished a decade later, he looked like he had gone to school with John Boehner.

It should be obvious that Better Call Saul has its work cut out for it. TV doesn't have a good track record when it comes to resetting the clock, even on its favorite characters.