Better Call Saul, and the state of television today

I certainly am not the first to observe that we are watching a fresh and dazzling Golden Age of Television exploding before us like an endless display of holiday fireworks but I’m quite sure I am the first to say that I rather deeply resent it. You see, from the year 2000 through 2012 while I was living in Canada I wrote a newspaper column called Inside Television. Every week I’d review the new and the notable, share industry and celebrity news, you know the sort of thing. By the end of it I was bored stiff of the project. Virtually the only worthwhile scripted series that were worth watching were Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  Try finding something exciting to say about Canadian drama. Go ahead, try, I dare you.

However, well wouldn’t you just know that as soon as I packed up four hundred books and one mildly sedated dog and moved across the Atlantic to Ireland all of a sudden television became interesting again. Well gee, thanks a lot. Now I knew how it felt to be a parent leaving the house for a weekend in the hands of a teenage son who was going to have a party that would make the Emperor Claudius blush.

Lest anyone leap to a conclusion on the basis of assumption, jingoism and flimsy evidence (what we might term the Brexit casserole) my re-discovery of  television re-discovering itself as a worthy art form is not a result of increased exposure to the offerings of these Atlantic islands. Irish TV is still basically Canadian but with sheep instead of moose, and Mayo bogs sinking where once Rocky Mountains loomed. Plus the best of Britain had always been available to me; frankly if you want to make an American drool, expose him to an upper-class accent. America is a land that divorced its wife 250 years ago yet still checks on her Facebook photos when he’s drunk.

It’s difficult to know the precise reasons behind why it is that television has rapidly become the medium for the sort of film auteurs that used to be celebrated in Les Cahiers du Cinéma so let’s not even try. Maybe later, but let’s for now leave the autopsy aside and celebrate the body while it’s still breathing. To state the state of television today with precision, it is exactly where film was in the late 1960s.

That decade of free love, The Pill, robust protest against The Establishment, and The Beatles growing mustaches was also the first decade where the absolute power of the motion picture studios had been shrugged away. The market was – oh look, what have we here? –  open to visionaries like Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Michelangelo Antonioni  (Blow-Up)  or Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey).  The story doesn’t make sense? So what!? Life doesn’t make sense baby! Film distributors discovered that a tenth of a marketplace of half a billion, when combining the English speaking worlds, was a pretty damn big marketplace. The ‘niche’ had been found and it would be serviced.

Television has found itself in a similar yet significantly different state, at least in terms of North American comparisons. Prior to say 2005 or so, any TV show with a Nielsen rating under 15 was going to be canceled. Failure. Be gone with you and all others of your ilk! Now? According to Nielsen, the top-rated show is (Christ knows why and you’ll never find the answer here) at 7.8 per cent of all TV’s tuned into it at time of first broadcast. And so we have a paradox and ultimately a delightful one: Because the bar of what has been termed a commercial success has been lowered, the bar of artistic success is raised. Attracting loyalty, week in/week out, episode by episode, subscriber by subscriber, was equally or even more important than the raw number of viewers. Look at it like a butcher or cheese shop – if you can keep ’em coming back every week you can sell them something. You might even be able to sell them horse steaks or armadillo curds if the punters trust you enough.

Big Bang Theory

Filmmakers or telemakers all of a sudden were not expected to appeal to the masses simply because the masses no longer existed except for such rare events as Olympic openings or Mary Berry tsking about a badly-laid marzipan design. What they have done with this sudden freedom to be geniuses is … genius.

Vince Gilligan is one such genius. He cut his teeth on The X-Files that creepy-crawly, paranoia-as-art, duvet-chewing piece of conspiracy tele-drama that was a staple of 1990’s cool-dom, for which Gilligan was the writer of 29 episodes and co-executive producer of 44. If we look back at his time there, what we realize is that the audience was, like a well-designed game show, always one step ahead of Mulder and Scully. Instead of howling, like an audience at a cheap-ass horror film upon seeing basement stairs, ‘Don’t go down there!’ instead it was a far, far creepier response of, ‘Don’t go up there!’ Those who know are much more dangerous than those who don’t.

Which leads us to Better Call Saul. Saul Goodman was a relatively minor figure through the run of Breaking Bad, itself a virtual documentary in the best Dante-esque descent to hell form. If Breaking Bad was Gilligan’s Hamlet and as such the record of its main character’s descent unto death, both with possible forgiveness in the hands of a skilled barrister, then Better Call Saul is both the story of that barrister as well as a personal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The auteur is both the literalist Shakespeare and the interpretive Tom Stoppard all at once.

And yet, as Henry VIII might have said, it’s all about the execution isn’t it? Such is the glory of Better Call Saul. The Saul Goodman, shyster lawyer extraordinaire of Breaking Bad was definitely a minor character, one who said to and when all began to unravel for Walter White, the latter-mentioned series’ Hamlet, ‘If I’m lucky I’ll be managing a Cinnabon franchise in a mall in Omaha, Nebraska.’

Poof! And Saul, and we are there! And yet. In that sense, the great question, the undiscovered country in Shakespearean terms, is how did it all come to this? Ah, my child, there hangs a tale.

The beauty of Better Call Saul is that it takes its audience’s awareness of where  it ends not as an impediment but rather as a freedom. As such the series becomes a meditation on freedom itself. ‘If I were faced with these life choices I would …’ You’d what? Please tell us. Screw over your borderline insane brother, do what it takes to assist your lover What would you do, what wouldn’t you do? If you can answer those questions easily, I want to know your church and what are the hours of worship.

There has been one great falsehood associated with this new Golden Age and that is that any four, eight, dozen episode series can be seen as a four, eight, twelve hour movie. A cat is like a dog insofar as each are four-legged domesticated species; the similarity ends there. Because Better Call Saul is in its third series of (presumably) loyal viewers it can in turn play with them. Vince Gilligan, his writers and directors included, therefore feel free to spend, in the first episode’s action, the best part of it as an elongated discovery regarding Mike Ehrmentraut (the incredible Jonathan Banks) and his desire to unearth who and how he is being tracked. You don’t get to do that in movies. Instead we have long, sound-sensitive, dialogue absent scenes of a character checking batteries. You could not do that in classic TV, you couold not so that in classic film. With a captive TV audience, oh yes you can.

Whether or not Better Call Saul  enters the pantheon of series that must be seen, or an oddity of things that were watched in the two thousand teens depends on how we proceed from here to there. We know that Walter White, Gus Fring, Saul Goodman and all the rest are waiting THERE, but how did we get there from here? That may prove to be Better Call Saul‘s genius. No matter what, that shall be a journey down the River Styx worth taking.

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