Logging in to Twitter yesterday, I was surprised to see a series of messages from Ken Coates. Yes, the Ken Coates.
Oh right, you probably don’t know him. He was my old politics teacher, and one of the few to have really got through to me in any profound way during my teenage years. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. This must be what it’s like for normal people when Justin Bieber retweets them.
Aside from a couple of mentions about politics (based on my completely unbiased look in to the details of Britain potentially leaving the EU), he posed the question to me of the greatest television programmes of all time, with Breaking Bad, The Wire and Game of Thrones as his offers.
The first two go without saying. But what do you place as the third*?
One that seems unlikely to ever reach that place is Better Call Saul. That, to me, is a shame. It’s obviously too soon to be able to judge exactly what cultural impact it will have, but it can’t be disputed that this is some seriously good television.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s the story of how Saul Goodman (from Breaking Bad, obviously) went from being a criminal lawyer to a lawyer criminal. The Saul Goodman character (Jimmy McGill as he is here) is so funny, and played with such great comedic timing by Bob Odenkirk, that this kind of feels like a comedy. It’s definitely laugh-out-loud enough to be one.
Except, it’s really not a comedy. If anything, it’s a tragedy.
The real challenge in making a prequel is that the audience already knows where the character is going. There are few shocks to be had. We know that Jimmy becomes “Saul”, because we see it for ourselves in Breaking Bad. While almost everything Jimmy does is funny, it’s kind of an empty laughter. Here’s a guy who is stuck between wanting to be legit but knowing he can’t ever be fully satisfied if he is. He is, and always will be “Slippin’ Jimmy”. No matter how much of a likeable underdog he is, we know he’ll go on to be the legal brains behind so many of the disasters that plague the lives of Walt, Jesse et al.
For this to work, the acting has to be nothing short of perfect. You have to root for Jimmy, despite knowing that he won’t ever make it. You have to hate Chuck, even though you know everything he says turns out to be right. Even Kim, who has the potential to be “the annoying one” (i.e. the one who stops the fun guy doing the fun things) is played so delicately and honestly that you’re rooting for her as well, even though you know she is going to fail to keep Jimmy true like everyone else. And Mike is… well, Mike. He doesn’t change, and for once it’s a good thing. He had his arc before the show even started, and now we’re left with the fruits of it. Wonderful.
Being a prequel, and being made by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, this is of course dripping with all the metaphors, call-backs and references that made Breaking Bad such an absolute delight to watch.
Metaphors like in the most recent episode (Season 2, Episode 2) where his flask won’t fit in the cup holder of his fancy Mercedes, but did fit in his old, battered Jimmymobile. Call-backs like the look on McGill’s face as he looks up from the driver’s seat, silently remembering the “Chicago Sunroof” (from a scene that provides another example of the excellent comedy/tragedy divide). The whole show feels like a giant “thank you” for watching it, but without ever pandering or patronising.
Also like Breaking Bad, it looks absolutely stunning. They should give classes in film school about how these shows make the bleak look so God damn beautiful. It’s kind of like a Western, in that the beauty of the visuals make you long to be a part of an environment you know is about as far away from your comfort zone as possible.
In fact, I’d struggle to find a single flaw in this whole programme. It’s sensational. So why, then, won’t it ever be considered in the top echelon of programmes?
The obvious answer is the inherent comparison to Breaking Bad. The universally agreed Great Programme Of All Time, as confirmed by Mr. Coates.
This is a comparison that would sink 99.9% of all televised media there has ever been, and so of course Better Call Saul is going to be overlooked. It’s probably seen as that show that is “kind of like Breaking Bad, only not as good”. For a show that has the potential to be better than almost anything else, that seems harsh.
If you strip out the comparison to Breaking Bad and watch it within its own right, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t on its way towards being one of the most incredible things ever committed to the small screen. But if you take that connection out, you lose the whole identity of the programme. Knowing how it turns out is what makes this what it is. The thing that makes it so unbelievably great is also the thing that will stop it becoming an all time great in the eyes of the viewers. If that isn’t a Breaking Bad-esque theme then I don’t know what is.
This is all a real shame, because television doesn’t get much better than this.
* The Simpsons. Debate over.
Better Call Saul Rating: The opposite of a Hoboken Squat Cobbler video.
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