If you watched all of Breaking Bad, then walk away. You’re already on board with Better Call Saul, unless you have some unusual and private disdain for Bob Odenkirk. My perspective is useless to you. It’s February of 2015 and the Super Bowl is over and you are going to watch this show.
I’m writing specifically to those of us who were intrigued by the commercials for Breaking Bad, put off watching it because it was an hourlong and we weren’t in the mood for the emotional investment that entails, and then let it slip away into assignment viewing until it became a party we were too late to arrive at with any dignity. I’m writing to those of us who love shows with unlikely criminals and wide shots of the desert but find ourselves skeptical and without the citations to explain why.
Me, I watched the first season of Breaking Bad and enjoyed it somewhat. But after the fiftieth Emmy nomination, or the twentieth “which Breaking Bad character are you?” clickbait quiz, or maybe the ten millionth Walter White Halloween costume, the show became impossible to watch. Too popular with people I knew who used to tell me Fight Club was “genius” and Boondock Saints was “simply epic.” Too widely and fervently accepted.
It’s probably safe to say that Breaking Bad and the aesthetic it spawned, whatever it is, has the populist prestige thriller racket on lock, and it probably will for a couple more presidents. And I missed the boat. That’s fine. I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather have Rockford Files on in the background than commit to the terms and conditions of a new show anyway. But I’m giving Better Call Saul a shot, because I want to figure out why I distrust the Vince Gilligan aesthetic, and because I’m a lifelong Bob Odenkirk fan. I think he can carry an hourlong and maybe rise above it into a second career as “former comedian who wins every award on the planet for playing a news anchor who saves the world/gets cancer.” I want to see how he’s honed his dramatic chops.
I have no awareness of his Breaking Bad character. I didn’t get that far, and this has been said a thousand times, but it’s a perfect character for him. Bob Odenkirk was born to play white-collar guys who have fallen so far from grace that they have to live like blue-collar guys. Professionals in worlds they weren’t born in and will never navigate quite right. Guys who were taught how to make $100,000 a year and have weary eyes from being unable to do so.
I’ve seen the first two episodes of Better Call Saul (and will probably check in on it sporadically). It starts off right, in the present day. Bob Odenkirk has fallen from grace. We get to savor this emotional range, which he handles expertly with a sense of private guilt and complete lonesomeness. The camera studies him in this place for a very long time. The shot composition in the sequence is perfect. It’s like the sad part of an Alexander Payne movie, and maybe a bit pretentious, a bit too cynical in its craft, but effective regardless. Then it flashes back to the road that led him there.
I won’t give away any plot details because I’m concerned with character. Odenkirk plays a public defender, maybe an ambulance chaser, a guy with a fine moral code who doesn’t have the control over his life that he expected. As a public defender, he’s forced to be a dirtbag. An actor who has to audition all day. He’s broke.
He’s perfectly suited to this. Bob Odenkirk plays the perfect public defender. He had a whole career’s worth of experience with people who might as well be public defenders, and it’s wonderful to see him given a weekly opportunity to explore this in depth. When he’s a broke lawyer, he’s a joy to watch. The show gives him plenty of space to live, and you want to watch him do it. You want to watch him go about his day broke and on the edge.
His character’s office/makeshift apartment is a closet in the back of a nail salon. He is completely hidden from society. His desk sits next to a water heater. His couch flips out and he has a pint of booze in a filing cabinet. Odenkirk seems to know exactly who lives in a room with a water heater, and how they come to terms with it. It’s fascinating to watch. The way he’s broke is fascinating.
He also has a brother who has gone off the deep end, played by Michael McKean. Their scenes together are rich with chemistry. They seem like blood relatives, with all the messiness, unspoken history and compromise that entails.
But these scenes do not represent the show, and after these scenes the show loses me. These are strong characters but after showing just enough of their lives, just enough to establish some plausibility, it all starts to feel like a David Fincher movie. The plotting and narrative devices become too loud, too tidy, and too overbearing.
Every movement has to have narrative significance. Every object is a Chekhov’s Gun. A matchbook unambiguously established in one scene must be unambiguously used later. Every character must represent some sort of pure ideological or physical conflict. Secretaries and federal employees and toll booth operators must all be obstacles. If blood is spilled on the floor, the villain has to be moving away from it as the hero notices and an innocent bystander creates urgency and forces action.
Every device, every frame does exactly the job it needs to with mathematical precision. I was continuously reminded of the way-way-way-too-loud framing device in the Breaking Bad pilot where Walter White has awful, passive sex with his wife, does an exciting misdeed, and then has dominant sex with her to establish his need for power. Life doesn’t give us 100-decibel framing devices like this. TV does.
Better Call Saul, barring isolated sequences, thus far establishes characters and their roles with fireworks. It establishes motivations, strengths, weaknesses with the telegraphed clarity of something you watch in a freshman year humanities class. You know, where you write a five-page paper on “how this program incorporated rising action or subverted the anti-hero” and then half-ass a comparison to Shakespeare. The narrative machinery is so obvious that the humanity of the characters gets lost. Everybody in the show is a TV character, a chess piece on Vince Gilligan’s board, except Odenkirk and McKean, who are able to get some humanity in edgewise. It’s like Gilligan read one of those “How To Write A $100 Million Movie Starring Keanu Reeves” books and memorized it word for word.
But none of that puts me off as much as two minor characters, these two skateboarding con artists. They are belligerently grating, unfunny little racists, and they say the word “biznatch,” and there’s nothing to do but be disgusted by them. The word “biznatch” alone almost completely ruined the second episode for me.
The cumulative effect of all this is that Better Call Saul is too burdened by its narrative rules to become fully realized as a show where Bob Odenkirk plays a lawyer on the outskirts of society. It is rigidly a show that operates within the Breaking Bad playbook and is unlikely to escape this. It’s too slick by design. Somewhere in between the textbook-perfect shot composition and the emotional beats hit at exactly the right second mark, Better Call Saul loses its humanity and becomes a Great TV Show, just like Breaking Bad. Admittedly, that’ll work for most people.