“Better Call Saul” -- the prequel to “Breaking Bad” -- relates the story of how Walter White’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman came into being. It has the same pedigree as “Bad,” with Vince Gilligan as the creator/showrunner and writer/director/comedian Bob Odenkirk as the title character. Like "Bad," it's also set in New Mexico and features the same taut dialogue, beautiful photography and creative direction. It’s absorbing and terrific to look at.
Alas, what it doesn’t have is a lot of buzz.
Determining whether a TV show is part of the national zeitgeist is a pretty subjective exercise, but there are objective ways of going about it.
The first clue I had about “Saul”: Whenever I try to share my excitement about the show, I can’t find anyone else who’s watching it. Then there’s the commentariat. Last year Slate.com dedicated a weekly podcast to "Saul," but there’s nothing similar this year. In fact, it rarely comes up in other podcasts that discuss the best shows of the week. And in the online world, there aren’t as many weekly recaps as there were last year.
The TV ratings seem to be OK -- decent when recorded viewing is added back in, but not spectacular. As for social media -- the keenest measure of “buzz” -- it isn’t a leader among published social media indexes.
So what gives? I’m half-inclined to say it’s “too good” to generate a wide audience. Unlike “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” isn’t violent or focused on the exploits of a criminal mastermind. Instead, it’s a perceptive character study about a small-time lawyer named Jimmy McGill who has a predilection for walking on the wild side.
The season-one narrative arc revolved around Jimmy’s attempt to prove himself to his older brother, who’s a brilliant but eccentric lawyer. In season two, Jimmy has shown himself to be a capable lawyer, but he can’t help but be attracted to the thrill he gets from scamming greedy and obnoxious marks.
Jimmy’s legal hijinks are always amusing and frequently hilarious -- funnier than half the sitcoms on TV, to be honest. And the story is absorbing because you know it’s leading up to the moment when Jimmy transforms from an honest but somewhat slippery lawyer into the outright morally dubious criminal attorney Saul Goodman.
The brilliance of the show is that this shift seems inevitable in retrospect — but really isn’t. Jimmy is constituted a certain way, but he does have free will. He is making conscious decision after conscious decision that, incrementally, is turning him into Saul Goodman.
I’d like to think that in a different TV environment this show would generate huge attention. But here’s the thing. I argued earlier that “Better Call Saul” was the best show on TV right now, but I'm not 100% sure of that. People keep telling me about other great shows that I don’t have the chance to watch. I’ve received so many suggestions that I can’t even remember them anymore.
I don’t get Showtime, so I immediately write off all those shows, and I’m pretty sure we don’t get BBC America, so there’s another category I don’t worry about. But I only scratch the surface on HBO, FX, AMC and the other prestige networks. AMC, "Saul"'s network, has another show, “Halt and Catch Fire,” that I’d love to watch — but until I become a full-time TV critic, I don’t think I’ll have time to do that.
Given the fragmented TV audience, it’s hard to think of many shows that actually do have buzz. “Downton Abbey” had serious buzz at the end of its run. “Saturday Night Live” has it when it has a good host; so does “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” when it produces a particularly amusing video segment. The return of “House of Cards” generated some water-cooler conversation, as will the next season of “Game of Thrones” when it premieres next month.
But none of these shows can monopolize the national conversation in the way that “Who shot J.R.” did 36 years ago, or that “Girls” did even as recently as five years ago.
I was at a small Manhattan dinner party a few weekends back, where we had a fairly extensive discussion about the movies that were nominated for the Academy Awards. But when we switched to discussing television, we found that, among four couples, there was not one show that even half of us had in common. I tried to get everyone interested in "Saul” with a complete lack of success.
In a world with so much choice, a show like "Saul” falls through the cracks, buzz-wise, as do dozens of other really good shows. There are worse problems to have — but there are days when I wish I didn’t feel as if I was watching TV in my own personal vacuum.