TV

‘El Camino’ Looks Great, But Will ‘Better Call Saul’ Ever Get Its Due?

Back in February, I expressed my misgivings about the new Breaking Bad movie. Why revive a TV show that nearly everyone believes actually pulled off a really good finale episode? I liked the idea that we didn’t know exactly what happened to Jesse Pinkman. It created space for a little ambiguity in a conclusion that answered pretty much every other question.

In my mind, the poor guy drove off into the sunset and somehow settled into a relatively peaceful life. Whether that was actually credible, at least I could imagine it as such. But now … we were going to put Jesse through the ringer again? I didn’t like it. Not only that, I declared that the Breaking Bad movie (along with the upcoming Sopranos movie) signaled the end of TV’s golden age. Instead of expecting innovation, we’re now looking for comforting rehashes of past glories.

I truly believed all of that back then, and I still do. Kind of. Well, actually … you saw this trailer, too, right?

Skinny Pete! Badger! Those images of wide-open New Mexican vistas that evoke both dark-hued ’70s westerns and dusty, southwestern noir! You think I can resist any of this? Of course not. I’m only a human Breaking Bad fan after all.

However, there is a small part of me that is still holding out ever so slightly on going full-on El Camino stan in anticipation of Friday’s premiere. And it has to do with my suspicion that this movie exists solely to give the fanbase what it wants, because Better Call Saul has gone out of its way to not do that.

Do you remember Better Call Saul? I only ask because the show ended its fourth season one year ago this month, in October 2018. Apparently it will be back in 2020, though it might be the final season, if Bob Odenkirk has his way. One year is an eternity in pop-culture time, especially if you’re a slow-burn legal drama in which the most memorable action scene — in marked contrast to the adrenaline-junkie extremes of Breaking Bad — involves a kicked-over gas lantern.

While people generally regard Better Call Saul as a very fine television program, it always seems to get forgotten once yet another perfectly conceived, expertly written, and wonderfully acted season comes and goes. In terms of Emmys, it has been nominated 22 times, including four consecutive nominations for Outstanding Drama plus nods for the exemplary acting of Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael McKean, and Giancarlo Esposito. (Meanwhile, the fantastic Rhea Seehorn has not yet been recognized, a true oversight after she arguably became the show’s focus in its fourth season.)

Out of all those nominations, guess how many Better Call Saul has won? Goose egg. Zilch. Zero. None.

I don’t care about Emmys. The Emmys are dumb. But they are indicative of how Better Call Saul is generally perceived — as a very good show, but never the best or most important show. While it has been well-reviewed throughout its run by critics, Better Call Saul is hardly ever mentioned among the most zeitgeist-y programs, even as it continues to be consistently great over the long haul while trendier shows crash and burn after a season or two.

Some of this comes down, I’m sure, to style. Better Call Saul is not trying to reinvent the form with self-consciously arty or cinematic flourishes, like Barry or Atlanta. It also does not chase after relevance in the manner of Succession. It is neither “a stinging rebuke of Trump’s America” nor a “nonlinear fever dream that explodes all boundaries.” It is, rather, fairly conventional, straight-forward television made with extreme competence and professionalism. Everything is executed with care, attention, and considerable skill. No time is wasted. There is no fat. You feel safe in the hands of Better Call Saul. That sort of dependability, I’ve found, is a rare commodity for a TV show these days, even if it’s not all that sexy.

I suspect that if Better Call Saul were a stand-alone character study about a con man who becomes a shady lawyer, to the chagrin of his more successful brother and his best friend/colleague/love interest, it might not be taken as much for granted as it is now. This show’s relationship with Breaking Bad, one of the most beloved TV dramas of the modern era, relegates it to a kind of also-ran status, in the same way that Jakob Dylan will never get credit for writing one of the most enduring rock songs of the ’90s because of you-know-who. You can’t help but pale in comparison when your parent is so iconic.

At the same time, it also seems true that Better Call Saul suffers from not being enough like Breaking Bad, especially among the most devoted fans of the original show. When Better Call Saul premiered in 2015 — two years after Breaking Bad ended — it was watched by about 6 million people. And the first few episodes dutifully replicated the previous show’s formula: Jimmy McGill, the porto-Saul, gets into a serious pickle with Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), winding up handcuffed and on his knees in the desert, awaiting execution. How many times have we seen Walter White in a similar predicament?

But Better Call Saul didn’t subsequently put Jimmy in situations like this all that often. Instead, it became a much quieter (though still tense, often unbearably so) exploration of how hundreds of tiny decisions and compromises add up to one’s fate. It thoughtfully depicted Jimmy’s troubled love-hate relationship with his arrogant but loving brother, Chuck (McKean), and the slow dissolution of his friendship-cum-romance with his soulmate, Kim (Seehorn). Even when chicken-selling drug lord Gus Fring (Esposito) re-appeared, Better Call Saul never wavered from its understated, low-simmering storytelling style.

And then there’s the matter of Mike (Banks), whose story occasionally intersects with Jimmy but more often runs in parallel. In Mike’s sequences, Better Call Saul reverts to a great ’70s crime thriller, in the vein of underrated cult classics like Straight Time and The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, in which long and complicated “action” scenes play it out in silence, and have more to do with Mike’s cunning than, say, anyone getting their face half-blown-off in a nursing home.

As Better Call Saul took this turn, the ratings continue to drop. Last season, the average audience size was about one-quarter of what it was for the series premiere. All the while, the prospect that Walter or Jesse might eventually show up has been dangled like a tantalizing bag of blue meth for prodigal viewers. But Better Call Saul has mostly stayed the course as its own side project that staunchly refuses to play the familiar hits.

At this point, it hardly seems worth it to compare Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad, because each show is trying to something radically different from the other. Whereas Breaking Bad is one of the most purely thrilling shows ever to air on television, Better Call Saul is among the most subtle. One is pharmaceutical Merck cocaine, and the other is a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.

I love how savory Better Call Saul is. But clearly there is a hunger for Breaking Bad content that delivers the high-octane goods, which brings us to El Camino. I’m excited for the movie, though it feels like fan service in a way that Better Call Saul never has. It’s like the band firing up “Satisfaction” after trying in vein to get fans excited about the new album. Of course, I want to hear “Satisfaction.” But the new stuff is good, too.

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