“Better Call Saul” is a TV rarity -- a prequel that’s as good as the series that spun it off, in this case the acclaimed “Breaking Bad.” It tells the origin stories of many key “Breaking Bad” characters, with a special focus on the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman and the mob hitman Mike Ehrmantraut. And then finally, in the last spoken line of this season, we learn how the main character gets his name when he says, don’t worry -- “It’s all good, man.”
I was never a fan of “Breaking Bad,” which was too violent for my weak nerves. Moreover, I never found the transformation of Walter White from a meek chemistry teacher into a master drug dealer very credible. No one charges THAT much.
Like “Breaking Bad,” “Saul” depicts the moral disintegration of its two main characters, except on a much more believable scale. We learn that “Saul Goodman” is actually Jimmy McGill, the brother of New Mexico’s most respected lawyer and a one-time screw-up who’s trying to go straight and use the law to help people.
Meanwhile, Mike is a dirty ex-cop grieving his dead son -- an inexperienced police officer who fatally tried to follow his father’s path into petty graft. (It’s worth noting that contrary to most TV shows, the most intense relationships on “Saul” are among blood relatives, not romantic interests.)
At the beginning of the series, Jimmy and Mike are already ethically compromised, but not excessively so. They have consciences and are full to the brim with empathy. It’s not pre-determined that they will also “break bad” in a major way.
On “Better Call Saul,” characters don’t consciously decide to pass over to the dark side. Instead, as in real life, their path involves a series of decisions – some of which involve attempting to do the right thing and discovering that being honest and humane can actually hurt you.
Be forewarned, however,, that watching “Better Call Saul” takes a lot of work. It’s the ultimate lean-in show, featuring a lot of ingenious schemes that require your total concentration. I would almost recommend not watching with a spouse, because at least once an episode, there is a conversation that goes like this:
“Why did he do that?”
“I don’t know anything more than you do.”
“But what’s he trying to accomplish?”
“I just said: we’re both getting the same information at the same time.”
The pacing of “Better Call Saul” is also unique on TV. Hardly an episode goes by that doesn’t slow down and demonstrate step by step how some mundane task is accomplished -- even something as basic as assembling loose-leaf binders. It’s like learning how to fish by reading early Hemingway.
A lot of this serious attention to detail involves the law. I have learned more about the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer from this one show than from all the legal procedurals in television history combined.
There are two main mysteries at the heart of “Saul,” both involving the ultimate fate of fully developed characters who don’t exist in the “Breaking Bad” universe.
One is Kim Wexler, the best character on the show and arguably one of the best characters currently on TV. She is Jimmy’s tightly wound girlfriend -- a legitimate lawyer who likes to walk on the wild side and who’s reluctant to give up on the guy she loves.
The other is Nacho, a foot soldier in a local drug gang who risks his life to protect his sweet and innocent father from being drawn into the crime world.
Over four seasons we have come to care deeply about both Kim and Nacho, and it’s hard not to speculate on and feel anguish over their coming fate -- whatever it is.
“Better Call Saul” is not a huge ratings hit and doesn’t get much buzz, but TV still needs more shows like it. It sets the bar high for what network TV and basic cable can accomplish in an era where the momentum seems to be moving to streaming services. With all due respect to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or “House of Cards,” neither Amazon nor Netflix have yet developed a series as visually stunning or intelligent as “Better Call Saul” (or “The Americans,” for that matter.)
More important, we need more appointment television -- more shows that we think about during the week. TV needs to have people dying to watch the next episode of their favorite series.
Commercial TV can’t thrive on reality shows, cooking competitions, lazy sitcoms, obvious procedurals, and movie reruns. We’ve got the streaming services for that. Traditional TV needs to widen the enthusiasm gap among viewers who can turn to Netflix anytime to see a pretty good show but would really prefer to see an excellent one on a weekly basis. If TV doesn’t keep coming up with the occasional great show, it will wither away.