On March 4, 1982, a new sitcom premiered on ABC. This pilot received praise from critics and viewers alike. It would go on to earn two Emmy nominations for “Outstanding Writing” and “Outstanding Lead Actor”. This show grew so popular that it lead to a spin-off movie trilogy. Despite its popularity and critical acclaim, this show never made it out of its first season. In fact, it was canceled after the fourth episode. Since I know you’re dying from suspense, this show was Police Squad! which became the Naked Gun! films. On the DVD commentary decades later, then president of ABC, Tony Thomopoulos stated Police Squad! was canceled because “the viewer had to watch it to appreciate it”. While this seems like a silly conclusion to draw, these sentiments are echoed by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, who believes the show was twenty years before its time. It didn’t fit the expectations of the time, so people didn’t really give it a chance.
I too believe shows can arrive before their time. Freaks & Geeks came out five years before the world was ready for it and maybe even Firefly. But can a show be five to ten years past its time? I think so. Better Call Saul is that show.
Better Call Saul is a dinosaur. It’s a remnant of the Mad Men/Breaking Bad peak TV era and it still operates under that same formula. I began watching out of curiosity and instantly felt foolish for questioning the quality of anything from the Breaking Bad crew. Then, I fell behind and stopped watching altogether. Season one gives the Breaking Bad faithful a few callbacks to keep them interested but season two becomes its own show. I admit I grew bored with the minutia of law and doc review. A few weeks ago, I binged the entire show in order to catch up with the entire season and fell right back in love. What’s interesting is the problems it causes are the very things that make it the best show on TV.
Watching Live vs Binging
If you’ve been following this blog long enough, you know I rant on and on about the age of streaming. Shows are now made to be consumed in one block. Your favorite streaming service hopes to grab you during those last fifteen minutes so you will watch another episode. Breaking Bad‘s episodes had an arc. They foreshadowed events, had a peak and a conclusion. Saul‘s episodes exist as a short story. Each episode is an anecdote of Jimmy McGill’s life told with subtlety. So, no offense, but Better Call Saul is much better when consumed in two or three episode blocks. Like its predecessor, no scene on Saul is wasted. Watching a few episodes at a time gives context to previous scenes that seemed irrelevant. This makes a huge difference and quells the frustration.
Better Caul Saul is a Breaking Bad Prequel, but the Best Version of this Show is All About Saul
Since Saul was just an ancillary character of the Breaking Bad-verse, everyone knew this show would be working towards the introduction of Walter White. Add Mike and the Salamancas into the mix and it’s only a matter of time. A lesser version of Better Call Saul would only be devoted to fan service. It wouldn’t be the most groundbreaking show but it would still be entertaining nonetheless. The best version about this show is when it veers away from the Breaking Bad-verse and focuses on Slippin’ Jimmy slowly becoming Saul Goodman. There’s more to Saul than just being the consigliere of a criminal enterprise: He’s an aimless little brother of a brilliant attorney and the boyfriend of a promising, young attorney. No matter how slimy Saul Goodman might be, he’s a good attorney; James Mcgill is not. Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck and Kim shape him into the man who he eventually becomes. Both of these characters are noticeably absent from Breaking Bad so figuring out what happened to them is far more interesting then ending up at the inevitable destination.
The End…is the beginning?
The one thing that might turn people away from Better Call Saul is the predictable ending. [Insert Breaking Bad spoiler] then Walt has to [Breaking Bad spoiler] Saul in order to [Breaking Bad spoiler]. If Breaking Bad taught you anything, it’s that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are anything but predictable. First, Saul has a lot of ground to cover before the Breaking Bad timeline and it has the luxury of setting its own pace. Breaking Bad’s story takes place in 2008. Saul is in its fourth season and the year is only 2004. Secondly, Saul can and will skip the Breaking Bad timeline altogether. The story that’s more interesting than Jimmy making his transition into Saul is what happens at the end of Breaking Bad when he finally has to order that dust filter for the “Hoover Max Extract”. (This one’s for you, Breaking Bad fans.) Saul will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. The path he’s traveled with Walt will lead him here. There’s plenty of stories to cover there.
Better Call Saul isn’t one of the best shows on TV because it emerged from the blue smoke of Breaking Bad, it’s because it has the same talented team and the same great characters. While I don’t buy into the argument that it’s better than Breaking Bad, I will admit it has an advantage. It doesn’t rely on shock or big moments. It has the advantage of taking as little or as much time as it needs to tell its story. It has a clearly defined ending. So instead of focusing on the “what?”, it can build a story off around the “how?” and “why?”. All of these things are the recipe for a huge mess of a show. But Saul takes these problems and uses them to make one of the best shows on TV.