Masterpiece Theater: for the Americans

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Bob Odenkirk stars as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul, the Saul Goodman origin story that we didn’t know we needed.

White-hot hit drama Breaking Bad gave birth to the surprisingly subtle Better Call Saul, a spin-off that is so muted and so thinkpiece-unfriendly that it may have easily flown under the radar, save for its handful of Emmy nominations for its three modest seasons.

The Emmys paid attention to the right thing (for once): Better Call Saul is absolutely wonderful. It’s how I often imagine Call the Midwife to be like, but with a healthy mix of old school noir, Perry Mason, Murder She Wrote, Grantchester, and all the visual panache and the cathartic context of Breaking Bad.

Focusing on Breaking Bad’s scene-stealing criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), Better Call Saul is mostly a prequel (and also sort of a sequel) to its meth dealing counterpart. The show tracks one man’s gradual transformation from scrappy, down-on-his-luck lawyer, Jimmy McGill to the slippery slick, strip mall lawyer, Saul Goodman.

In its three seasons so far, the show has explored the complex and antagonistic relationship between Jimmy and his brilliant lawyer brother, Chuck (brilliantly played by Michael McKean), who is suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and the loving but sometimes frustrating relationship between Jimmy and his on-and-off girlfriend and very hard working lawyer, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). These relationships effectively form the soul of the show, gently weaving all the traits that make Jimmy human, yet showcasing all the vices that will inevitably transform him into Saul.

It wouldn’t be a Breaking Bad prequel without some connection to a threatening drug underworld. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) returns in a more prominent role in this show, as his backstory and personal life have more space to thrive.

I started binging Breaking Bad after I finished the masterpiece that is The Sopranos. While there are arguments hinting otherwise, The Sopranos is the richest television drama series ever created. Breaking Bad, though aesthetically memorable, structurally ambitious, and cleverly made, is also, admittedly, blissfully gimmicky and frustrating. With Breaking Bad, though, showrunner Vince Gilligan has created a one-of-a-kind universe with a glorious wasteland of characters, storylines, and premises that its audience simply needs to accept–some of it rings true, and some of it leaves us all feeling a bit cheated.

Better Call Saul, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from Breaking Bad’s deficiencies. There’s a charming glassy-eyed naivete (if that’s even the right word) to Better Call Saul that makes it sharper, sweeter, more intelligent, more endearing, and more pleasant. It doesn’t mean it’s not a dark show–it can sometimes be as emotional and emotionally violent as Breaking Bad--but it’s smart enough to teeter on the edges of moral ambiguity without drowning its audience in a series-long ethics debate.

Ultimately, Better Call Saul is an eccentric philosophical musing about the law and how to execute it, done with all the bravado of a used car salesman. It’s a show about lawyers, who do their job, think about their job, talk about their job, bleed their job, live their job. And, in an expansive universe of cute lawyer shows, it feels exceedingly rare to watch a law firm workplace drama that has dimensions beyond hookups, breakups, and the occasional trial. Better Call Saul is to lawyers, as Whiplash is to jazz drummers–I think.

I don’t think Better Call Saul will ever have the same astronomical mass cool appeal as Breaking Bad, but I do hope it finds an audience beyond the folks with a geriatric sweater knitter soul. It’s a show that feels like it could have been on Masterpiece Theatre–in the time slot right after Call the Midwife, I suppose–if it were a British production. Yet, as fate would have it, it’s on AMC, and one could only hope that the Breaking Bad and Mad Men fans someday find it worthwhile.

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