You’ve either finished Breaking Bad (BB) and want more, or you’re putting off watching it because “I know, I know, everyone keeps saying how good it is, geez, get over yourselves”.
You do not need to know anything about this show to understand what I’m saying. BB is not the focus of this review.
Better Call Saul, its spinoff prequel show, is airing its 3rd season this April 10th. And you should be watching it.
This is an argumentative and persuasive spoiler-free review of Better Call Saul, seasons 1& 2. I’m not picking apart all existing twenty episodes. Because you can read a superior episode-by-episode analysis by AV Club’s Donna Bowman here.
I’m dissecting what sets this show apart from the rest and why it’s worth your attention. Even the typical BB viewer seems to find difficulty watching past the first few Better Call Saul (BCS) episodes, or with finishing the first season.
So why the disconnect?
BCS seasons 1&2 are prequels to BB.
BCS episode 1 opens with an intro referencing its parent show, BB. The title “Better Call Saul” refers to a catchphrase from BB. From the gates, BCS launches into full fan references and never pauses to explain, not once in all existing twenty episodes. It’s created for BB fans, those who already know that BCS is exploring a character’s past and how he came to be who he is years later.
BCS explores the very world that BB characters inhabit and how it evolved. BB was a character study with a vague notion of the conclusion, whereas BCS is a character study with a concrete outcome we’ve witnessed.
But even many fans of BB have not carried over.
So what changed?
It’s 2017, two years after BCS first aired in early 2015. The TV landscape has changed significantly from when BB first aired in early 2008.
2008 saw the Writer’s Strike. Every network was affected. Shows shut down. Others never saw an episode past their pilot. Conan O’Brien was climbing through the rafters manning the camera just to keep his late night show running.
The Writer’s Strike shortened BB season 1, and as its creator, Vince Gilligan, noted in the official BB podcast that without the strike BB would have been a very different show. Regardless, the show persevered for five seasons into late 2013, lauded by critics and warmly supported by AMC.
The Writer’s Strike was not a deterring factor.
Alright, we get it. It was a successful show. But what’s so different between 2008 and 2015?
Cable networks and online streaming services. Between 2008 and 2010, video store rental mega-chain Blockbuster tried to compete with streaming services by offering their own online OnDemand service. Netflix was a new standard for entertainment, as tens of thousands of consumers cancelled their cable subscriptions in favor of saving themselves literally thousands of dollars.
BB really owes Netflix a big thank you for welcoming millions of new fans, as Netflix is likely the reason why BB season 5 hit record numbers for the show’s average lifetime ratings.
By 2015, Netflix was producing original series. Their House of Cards remake won the Golden Globes for Best Dramatic Male Performance. Amazon Studios was also competing, its original series Transparent taking home a Golden Globe for Best TV Series, musical or comedy.
The ease of digital delivery transformed every network until the playing field leveled.
HBO and Showtime are now fighting for our attention as much as YouTube is. Streaming services are not only financial competitors to the other networks, forcing them to revamp their availability models, but they’re artistic contenders.
Fine, the landscape changed. But what set Breaking Bad apart from the other shows?
Early 2008, BB season 1 aired and received underdog recognition for its unexpected casting of that dad from Malcolm in the Middle and its sharp writing.
For comparison’s sake, in late 2008, the 3rd season of Dexter aired and received lukewarm reception. Dexter would return in 2009 with some of its strongest reviews since seasons 1&2, but the show’s favor had declined amongs critics and viewers, even with its most ardent fans. Dexter, as many television shows follow this trend, steered in oddball directions, largely due to changing show runners, and should have ended sooner instead of running eight seasons long.
The further a show strays from its onset, the more likely its audience will reject its conclusion.
In 2009, BB made a bold choice with its season 2 finale. In this reviewer’s opinion, BB really spreads its wings from the very end of season 2 and the very start of season 3.
Breaking Bad was a slow burn. And Better Call Saul is no different.
What’s a slow burn?
Ten episodes spent trying to decide if you can trust a character’s motivations. Or three episodes spent watching someone struggle with having to kill a criminal.
Everything in BB and BCS matters, from the way an actor prepares a sandwich to what color of outfit they’re wearing. It is a rich world crafted by obsessive creatives.
Had the 2008 Writer’s Strike never happened, viewers might have felt that BB season 1 dragged, and they might have lost patience and quit watching, just as many have with BCS. Because of the Strike, BB S1 had less episodes to cram enough of the original story arc into it.
So you’re saying it’s a poorly written show and we were right about it being boring. What’s your point?
BB was written structurally different from any other television show that was airing at the time.
The writers of BB and BCS are not writing each season as an author might write a book. They’re writing each season as an author might a chapter.
This isn’t as precise of an analogy as I’d like, and to really make my point for any nitpickers out there, I’d have to break down into deep analysis and provide spoilers. That being said…
BB and BCS are character studies.
Season 1 introduces our main protagonist being dissatisfied with his livelihood, and somewhere along the way he’s shown a glimpse of a different kind of life he could be living.
Season 2 builds the world in which the protagonist lives, and he’s introduced to a larger cast of characters who can and will affect him. But S2 gives us a major event at the end, an event that serves to do two things: to punish the protagonist and simultaneously bless him with everything he’s wished for.
Season 3 is where the show takes off, having built enough momentum to propel viewers into binge-watching whatever episodes are left. The writers tend to write themselves into even sharper corners as the fourth season looms ahead.
So Breaking Bad did what no other show was doing at the time. BB challenged the status quo. Why is BCS not catching my attention?
Those first two seasons alienate the casual viewer. The writers have taken a chapter of a story, not an entire book, and stretched it out over ten episodes. BCS does what BB did but even more so.
BCS is an even slower burn. For research, Peter Gould, the show’s co-creator, spent time sitting in on courtroom hearings paying attention to the most mundane happenings. As he stated on the BCS official podcast, they didn’t want to portray the law in every way that other shows presented it. People coughing. Awkward pauses. These are not hallmarks of the most popular programs, not in Law and Order or any “heart pounding” TV drama.
So why the hell would I wanna watch people cough or pause awkwardly?
In 2017, we are not only bombarded with a plethora of entertainment to satiate ourselves with, we’re also encumbered with more delivery services than we can afford. We don’t have the money and we don’t have the time.
So I understand that if a show feels like a slow burn it feels like a waste of your time.
You may prefer to binge-watch a show by doing the laundry and paying half-attention to it in the background, or maybe you actually prefer feeling lost in a story.
Better Call Saul was created for those who enjoy getting lost. It was also created for those who can afford some patience, because for those sorts of viewers it pays off. And these types of shows come around once out of every hundred shows.
It’s surprising any good TV series or film is ever made. The amount of people involved to make a show come alive is impressive. I’ll task anyone with putting together fifty people or a hundred, or several hundred, and order them to make something worth our time, a consistent fifty hour narrative.
Breaking Bad was an acquired taste, a show that irrevocably changed future television dramas, and Better Call Saul is no different.
To enjoy, all you need is patience. And access to cable. Or Internet streaming services.
Better Call Saul returns to AMC Mondays this April 10th.