Breaking Bad was a good show; Better Call Saul is a nearly perfect show. From its confident debut to its bravura third season, Better Call Saul is more than just an entertaining spin-off; it's a master class in how to grab an audience's attention and never let go.
Now that the show's fourth season is about to debut, it's high time to examine why Better Call Saul is not just another great show in a new golden age of TV — it's probably the best show on TV right now, period.
What's the show all about?
If you haven't seen it (I'm assuming you've heard of it; the ad campaign has been pretty extensive), the show acts as a prequel/sequel to the hit AMC drama Breaking Bad.
Disreputable lawyer Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy McGill, has left his life as a shyster attorney behind. But his menial, unsatisfying job at a Cinnabon (presented entirely in black and white; the show is not subtle) gives him plenty of time to reflect on the dramatic circumstances that led him to become an occasionally extralegal ambulance-chaser in the first place.
Better Call Saul takes place six years before Breaking Bad begins and focuses on Jimmy and the most important people in his life. Aside from returning Breaking Bad cast member Jonathan Banks (the delightfully even-tempered fixer Mike Ehrmantraut), the rest of the main characters are brand-new: the brilliant but mentally ill Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), the morally upstanding workaholic Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and the curt, imperious Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian).
A promising premise and a seasoned cast don't fully explain the show's success, of course. To delve a little deeper, we'll have to talk about that elusive quality of an unforgettable TV show: heart.
Breaking Bad was unpredictable and intense, and it moved at a fast clip (after Season 1, anyway). But Breaking Bad is also often hard to watch, and there's a very simple reason why: Every character in it is profoundly unpleasant, and the vast majority of them are stupid, selfish or just plain evil.
That's just not the case in Better Call Saul. Unlike the greedy, calculating Saul Goodman, the younger Jimmy McGill has a good heart. He plays fast and loose with the rules, but the audience knows exactly why. Jimmy idolizes his older brother and wants to make a difference as a lawyer. Furthermore, Jimmy is genuinely charming, whether he's bidding farewell to a bunch of nail salon workers, talking an elderly client through the fine points of her will or building up a romantic relationship with Kim.
While Jimmy's not perfect by a long shot, he's trying to make his way in a world that doesn't always have a place for people like him. That's easy to understand and even easier to sympathize with. Compare this to Walter White's perpetual bubbling anger or Jesse Pinkman's baseless swagger, and it's clear that Better Call Saul has a more relatable protagonist.
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Granted, unpleasant protagonists aren't automatically bad. (There's a reason people still read "The Catcher in the Rye"). But in the very best TV shows — the ones that stay with us for years and years, even after they go off the air — we see something relatable in the main characters. Whether it's Captain Kirk's roguish beneficence, Kunta Kinte's righteous defiance or even Homer Simpson's hapless enthusiasm, really good television can reveal a few things about our inner natures. Love or hate the character, most people would have bailed on Walter White's plan long before Walter himself did.
And that's what Better Call Saul ultimately delivers that Breaking Bad never could: likable, empathetic characters. There is something good and something bad in every cast member. Jimmy is an accomplished liar, but he's also concerned with making life better for an underserved population. Chuck is vain and controlling, but he cares deeply for his friends and family. Kim practices and enables harmful lifestyle choices, while sticking her neck out again and again for people she loves. Even Mike — who does some extremely shady, illegal, borderline-murderous stuff — honors his bargains and never lets his ego supersede his judgment.
One thing that makes Better Call Saul so compulsively watchable is that its characters are, above all else, reasonable. No one makes ultimatums. No one swears off another character forever. No one makes grandiose threats. In fact, characters are often patient and understanding with one another, whether it's the boss at the law office tolerating Jimmy's unhinged behavior, Jimmy sticking up for Chuck after a heartbreaking betrayal or a crime lord letting Mike simply walk away after rooting out the cause of their disagreement. It would be so easy for Better Call Saul to descend into melodrama, but it always resists the temptation with a measured hand. (That's what really makes it sting when characters decide to take extreme actions.)
Production values and acting
Better Call Saul has memorable characters who interact in unpredictable ways. That's half of why Better Call Saul is so compulsively watchable. The other half has to do with everything that happens behind the scenes: writing, cinematography and, especially, acting.
The show's writing generally speaks for itself. The dialogue is believable and realistic, balancing moments of high drama with pitch-perfect black comedy. But the writing also shines when the characters don't say anything at all. Huge stretches of Better Call Saul revolve around characters sitting in silence or moving from place to place.
The show devotes long periods to landscape shots of the American Southwest and Mexico. Better Call Saul is not afraid to be quiet, which demonstrates that the show has a good deal of trust in its audience. And no scene is wasted; every moment spent watching a truck drive down a highway or a character watch the street from a dark window results in a big payoff later on.
Granted, these quiet scenes would not be so powerful if the cinematography were any less sure-footed. A lot of Better Call Saul is just standard wide shots or slow zooms, which focus on the characters as they interact. There aren't many Dutch angles or examples of trick photography to draw the audience's attention away. But when the show goes for long periods without any dialogue, it gets experimental. Candy-colored filters, sweeping exterior shots, blurry exposures that mimic double-vision, low-angle perspectives from underwater locations — Better Call Saul is not afraid to get weird. And every weird shot ultimately serves the sincere-but-slightly-magical tone of the series.
Finally, I could go on for days about the quality of the acting on the show, but two cast members go above and beyond. The first is McKean, who is simply operating on a different level than about 90 percent of TV actors today. After charming viewers as a hard rocker in This Is Spinal Tap (and scaring them as an evil clown in Star Trek: Voyager), McKean incorporates a little bit of everything in his latest role. The audience loves Chuck McGill for his upbeat personality, keen legal mind, charming oratory and genuine concern for others. But the audience also hates him for his duplicity, egocentrism and obsessive tendencies. All the while, McKean is also playing a man who's profoundly sick but refuses to admit it. In every moment that Chuck is on screen. The audience does not know what will happen next, and few actors would be up to that challenge.
And then, there's Bob Odenkirk in the starring role. Odenkirk is a natural comic actor, with a gift for facial expressions, over-the-top inflections and precise timing. Those qualities are what made Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad so much fun to watch. But Jimmy McGill is not (yet) Saul Goodman. He experiences the whole gamut of emotions, from soaring triumph as a clever lawyer to heart-wrenching pain as a wronged brother. There's already been a sea of digital ink spilled about just how good Odenkirk is as Jimmy McGill, so I won't go into tremendous detail here. But I can say that if Saul Goodman was an entertaining caricature, Jimmy McGill feels like a real person.
If we're going to claim that Better Call Saul is the best show on TV, we should examine why a few other contenders fall short of the mark. Through a highly scientific process known as "shouting at my co-workers over a desk partition," I've determined five other hour-long dramas that contend with Better Call Saul for the top TV spot. (Let's leave sitcoms, reality shows and documentaries aside for the moment; it's hard to compare across formats.)
First, the wildling mammoth in the room: Game of Thrones. This inventive HBO fantasy series features a diverse cast of interesting characters, stellar performances, impressive special effects and a loyal fan following. But let's be honest: Ever since the show stopped following George R.R. Martin's unfinished "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series, the story has been all over the place, and the writing has been a lot less sure-footed. Next.
Killing Eve is a brand-new series about a secret agent who goes head to head with a dangerous assassin. The show's intense story and star performers (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) positively ooze style, and the series deserves some credit for putting interesting female characters in the forefront. But Killing Eve is still mostly just a spy thriller, and it may not have the kind of emotional core that makes viewers into lifelong fans.
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Fans of the British monarchy love The Crown, which follows the life of a lightly fictionalized Queen Elizabeth II. The show's basis in real-world history gives it some staying power, and having each season deal with a different era of Elizabeth's life is a smart conceit. Still, British costume dramas are always a bit niche, and The Crown is no exception.
Westworld is a recent contender for the "best show on TV" title. With a memorable performance from Anthony Hopkins, a probing sci-fi story line and a distinctive Old West aesthetic, the show has plenty going for it. But two seasons in, the series has veered toward the convoluted side, sometimes substituting complexity for depth.
Then there's Legion, easily my second-favorite show of the current crop of prestige TV offerings. Legion is a gorgeous subversion of the superhero show, taking a second-tier X-Men villain and transforming him into a three-dimensional protagonist with a quirky, affable supporting cast. Legion's stylish cinematography and smart deconstruction of the superhero genre make it one of the best shows on television, but like Westworld, it occasionally feels a little too in love with its own premise.
It's all good, man
Better Call Saul Season 4 will premiere on Aug. 6, and early reviews suggest that it still has all the hallmarks of the series that fans have grown to love. If the show can run for six seasons, it will create a satisfyingly complete narrative, leaving off right where Breaking Bad picks up in the timeline. But whatever happens in Season 4 and beyond, the first three seasons of Better Call Saul make the sometimes-overwrought prime-time drama landscape feel worthwhile.
If you haven't seen Better Call Saul yet, you can find the first three seasons on Netflix. With 10 episodes per season, it's an extremely manageable commitment. And if after 30 episodes, you're not convinced that Better Call Saul is as good as modern TV gets, leave your thoughts in the comments, and we'll see if the topic is worth re-examining.
Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC