Mike always looked old. Now he looks really old.
Saul’s face sagged a little. Now it sags more.
Tuco is still scary. But now he looks a little puffy, a little tired.
We’re talking “Better Call Saul,” AMC’s prequel to the phenomenally popular and addictive “Breaking Bad,” the story of a high school chemistry teacher whose cancer diagnosis leads him into a life of meth-dealing and murder.
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“Better Call Saul,” now in its second season, seems to be leading us to an understanding of how a young, barely legitimate lawyer named Jimmy McGill (who obtained his law degree online from the University of American Samoa) eventually morphs into the Saul Goodman we know from “Breaking Bad” — an ethically challenged attorney in a garish strip mall office whose TV commercials always end with the tag line: “Better call Saul!”
As “Breaking Bad” fans know, Goodman’s clients would eventually include the money-laundering meth dealers and killers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.
Saul, as played by Bob Odenkirk, and his lethal fixer, Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks), became such popular characters on “Breaking Bad” that nobody was really surprised when the spinoff series was announced.
But here’s the thing: “Breaking Bad” ran from 2008-13. Although creator and head writer Vince Gilligan frequently incorporated flashbacks into the narrative, the show was set in the “present.”
“Better Call Saul” opens in 2002 — six years before Saul Goodman’s first appearance on “Breaking Bad.”
Now, all entertainment requires viewers to suspend their disbelief. We all understand that “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad” are prime examples of high-dollar make-believe. It’s fun for us to buy into the fantasy.
But there are limits. The problem?
Odenkirk, 53, and Banks, 69, don’t look six years younger. “Better Call Saul,” like “Breaking Bad,” communicates quite a bit of backstory through flashbacks, which only exacerbates the odd feeling that we’re caught in some sort of time warp, where people in the past are actually older than they are in the present.
The show’s designers and craftspeople do all they can to sell it. Lighting, hair pieces and camera work can do a lot. Age lines can be ironed out, hair can appear thicker. But only to a point.
Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), a sociopathic drug dealer and one of the most memorable characters in “Breaking Bad,” so far isn’t quite as crazy in “Better Call Saul.” Could it be because the actor has a bit less energy than he did a few years ago?
And Tio Salamanca (Mark Margolis), the mute, wheelchair-bound drug lord in “Breaking Bad,” has already made one appearance on the current series. He walks and talks, but even with a hat and dyed hair, he doesn’t look younger. He just looks weirder.
There’s been talk of other “Breaking Bad” regulars making cameo appearances on “Better Call Saul.” A younger-but-weathered Walter White (Bryan Cranston) conceivably could pop up. So could a younger-but-older-looking Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). The list continues: Anna Gunn as Walter’s wife, Dean Norris as his DEA agent brother-in-law. Maybe we could see a more youthful (yet middle-aged) version of drug kingpin Gustavo Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito, setting up his chain of fried chicken restaurants as a front for his drug operation.
I’m sure that “Better Call Saul” fans will be annoyed by a writer harping on the show’s basic credibility problems. But don’t get me wrong. This series has much to recommend it. Odenkirk and Banks are delivering strong performances. One of the quirkiest and most interesting characters of either series is Chuck McGill (the excellent Michael McKean), Saul’s older brother, an agoraphobic attorney who is hypersensitive to electromagnetic energy.
The bottom line is that Odenkirk and Banks are such good actors that they draw us in, even if they do look a bit long in the tooth to be playing younger versions of Saul and Mike.
But something feels missing.
From beginning to end, “Breaking Bad” moved with a sense of urgency and acquired the dramatic power of Elizabethan tragedy. We’re not seeing that yet in “Better Call Saul.” It’s a more casually paced show.
Meanwhile, much of the fun in “Better Call Saul” is to be found in the show’s sly allusions — the “Easter eggs” — to “Breaking Bad.” They’ll mean nothing to viewers who never saw the first series, but die-hard fans will be entertained. Some of the references are so obscure that only the most obsessive viewers will pick them up. Fortunately there are entire websites dedicated to the eggs.
And maybe that’s the problem. The writers and producers are so focused on making sure that “Better Call Saul” interlocks smoothly with “Breaking Bad” that the show doesn’t have room to breathe, to be its own thing.
But a third season has been announced. Of course, a third season means the actors will all be a year older.
My plan is to keep watching. Who knows? Maybe “Better Call Saul” will eventually measure up to “Breaking Bad” standards. But fate has decreed that Saul and Mike will always be caught in that time warp, their younger selves aging beyond their older selves.
Maybe we should just think of it as a cruel cosmic joke.
“Better Call Saul” airs at 8 p.m. on Mondays on AMC. Previous episodes are available on demand. Some Season One episodes are available on Netflix streaming.