“Better Call Saul” Will Never be as Good as “Breaking Bad” and That’s Okay
I hate when people ask me what my all-time favorite television show is.
That’s not because I don’t have an answer but because the answer will inevitably disappoint them. The light in their eyes will quickly extinguish when they learn the truth, that my answer is the same as countless others. Trust me, for someone who watches a lot of television, saying that “Breaking Bad” is my favorite show of all-time feels like a cop-out. But the writing is amazing. The cinematography is twelve steps above anything else on TV. The show is intensely plotted and wildly intense. It basically created the “Play Next Episode” option on Netflix (or at least introduced me to it, don’t check my facts on that one).
All of that is to say that it might be an annoying answer, but it’s the right one. And for me, “Breaking Bad” was my gateway drug into the TV storytelling world. But I still found myself feeling rather hesitant when I heard that AMC would continue its exploration of the “Breaking Bad”-verse with a spin-off show about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and professional fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).
“Breaking Bad” had one of the most satisfying endings in television history when it comes to wrapping everything up in a nice little bow and shipping it off to streaming services everywhere. There was just a strong feeling that we didn’t need to go back to Albuquerque. The story of that world had been told. At best, the green-lighting of “Better Call Saul” had come from a naïve desire to keep a production team together that had made a pantheon-level show. At worst, it was a disingenuous and disheartening cash grab.
Fortunately, though, I was wrong. Because Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould — two of the main writers on “Breaking Bad”* and the co-creators of “Better Call Saul” – are simply really damn good at making television. They know how to make entertaining television and understand the importance of adapting to what is working best in order to help their show reach its maximum potential.
*Gilligan was the creator and showrunner of “Breaking Bad.”
Sure, “Better Call Saul” is not as good as “Breaking Bad,” and it never will be. “Breaking Bad” had a powerful and compelling main narrative – middle-aged man diagnosed with cancer starts dealing drugs to make enough money to support his family after he dies and slowly turns into Scarface in the process. “Better Call Saul” couldn’t possibly keep the audience’s heart rate and interest anywhere near the same level. It’s important to remember, though, that no show can be “Breaking Bad.” It’s a once-in-a-generation show. So the truth is, I don’t care that “Better Call Saul” isn’t as good. Because it’s pretty freaking awesome in its own right.
“Better Call Saul” is a show about the making of Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut, two fantastic and important supporting characters from “Breaking Bad.” It takes place well before “Breaking Bad” (it’s hard to pinpoint an exact time), early enough that Saul is known by his birth name James Morgan McGill and Mike is punching tickets in a gated parking lot. And stuff happens – which I won’t spoil here – as they slowly journey toward their “Breaking Bad” selves.
The show’s greatest achievement is that one-and-a-half seasons in, as the creative team taps the brakes on Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman, I can watch an entire episode of a show that is a spin-off of my favorite of all-time and not think about the mothership even once. It has carved out a niche and differentiated itself so distinctly that it doesn’t even feel like something that was born out of a show that I’ve already seen. It will never be “Breaking Bad,”** but “Better Call Saul” is currently the most enjoyable and well-made show on television.
**And I don’t think it will ever be as popular as “Breaking Bad” either. The season two premiere had a solid-but-not-spectacular 2.57 million viewers (worth noting: it was up against the Grammys). “Breaking Bad” had 10.3 million people watching by the time its series finale aired. So only about a quarter of the viewers seem to have followed two of Breaking Bad’s” most beloved characters to the spin-off.
The cinematographic team continues to be the best in the TV business by a million miles, finding unique angles and ways of viewing the world not just with each new week, but with each new shot. The writing team is still hilarious,*** and watching Slippin’ Jimmy come up with his clever tricks and cons never ceases to entertain. The acting is fantastic. Bob Odenkirk (who has been great in absolutely everything the last few years) and Jonathan Banks really bring out new sides to characters we thought we already knew, making us care about them in ways that should be impossible considering their fate is already predetermined.
***Seriously, go back and watch “Breaking Bad” again. You will probably be surprised to remember how funny it is given how darkly it ended.
If you are a “Breaking Bad” fan – heck, even if you’re not – “Better Call Saul” is well worth your time. You might start each episode with very little recollection of what happened in the one before – very much unlike “Breaking Bad” – and spend a decent amount of time wondering what the hell Sandpiper is, but watching Gilligan, Gould and Co. work is just downright pleasurable. There’s nothing on TV right now that I’m more excited to return to week to week than “Better Call Saul.”
And I’m not ashamed to say it.
The second season of “Better Call Saul” is currently airing on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC. You can watch the first season on Netflix, and Season Two is available on AMC’s website with a cable subscription. Check it out, and let us know what you think.
Hidden in Plain View is a bi-weekly column where I help you find great shows buried in the clutter that is modern television. With more than 400 original scripted series on TV in 2015 alone (and more expected this year), it is simply a fact that you’re missing out on something great. Archive of previous columns here.