AMC’s Better Call Saul Doesn’t Achieve Greatness

Question: Would you still watch Better Call Saul if there was no Breaking Bad first?

Would you still dig the characters and story as much?  If there was no precedence of the iconic show that marks its future, would Better Call Saul be as juicy? Does it have the merits to build an entire show on or is it a nostalgic ride that reminds people of their departed favorite show? It’s a question many struggle with and I posed to myself as the first season comes to an end Monday night.

The truth is the show is an uneven mess and varies in tone so much that a viewer can get lost on the way to figuring out if this show is truly great or simply riding the coattails of its meatier predecessor. Mixed within the seedy Albuquerque land that co-creator Vince Gilligan paints in this universe are scenes of heavy hitting power and poignancy but they are more scattered than one would like. During the first nine episodes, the writers can’t figure out when to properly unmask their anti-hero, Jimmy McGill, and reveal him as Saul Goodman, the character many know and love from Breaking Bad.

Right there, the dilemma strikes. Is everything good about Saul only because it was so well done in Breaking Bad? Let’s examine.

Jimmy McGill isn’t even the well rounded and most interesting guy on his own show. That’s Mike Ehrmantraut, played with hard boiled convincing subtlety by Jonathan Banks. Come on, let’s face it. The best episode was the Mike hour, “Five-0” and Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy was barely in it. It was centered on Mike’s past where he uncovered the plot to his son getting murdered by fellow cops and him taking up revenge and tied it to the present where he finally came clean to his daughter in law about what really happened. Banks’ work belonged on another show, one that didn’t have Saul in the title. Pretty much all of Banks’ work as Mike on this show belongs on another series entirely because the tone is so much more assured and direct than the Jimmy scenes.

With no offense to Odenkirk, who was excellent on BB and is good here, his character just isn’t that interesting. He’s like a decent cheeseburger at a diner. You like it, eat it, digest it and may speak well of it but you don’t remember it in the morning. Mike’s scenes are a juicy steak that you feel easy attachment to and revel in for hours. It’s easy to get behind Mike and we know he is a criminal and we know his future but unlike Jimmy, Mike’s future doesn’t make you love his work on Better Call Saul. He is interesting enough to where you wish you didn’t know his fate and gets to the point of where it’s not needed at all. I found myself in the first four hours of the show pleading for more Mike and the man barely left the toll booth and was a bad joke magnet for Odenkirk.

You could pull all of Mike’s scenes from Better Call Saul and make a great indie crime flick and something I would pay to see in theaters. He’s just more interesting than Jimmy and I doubt Saul will improve next season.

Odenkirk’s Jimmy will more than likely become Saul on Monday’s finale and it may swing the show in a more well rounded complete direction with season 2 awaiting us next year. That’s all fun and cool for the writer’s room to invest in because they can see the world being created on the pages further ahead than we can, but it doesn’t do much for me when wondering if the show’s tone will change or if Saul will be the most complete guy in season 2. The truth is he wasn’t the best character on Breaking Bad. Mike was and still steals scenes from him on this series. Odenkirk’s creation was a great supporting character on Bad, and maybe that’s all he ever will be. A decent supporting character but unable to support the title spot of a highly anticipated series. That is the main factor in my inability to love this show. The producers and creators are pushing a character that isn’t easy to love down our throats while we plead for more Mike. Think about it. You want more Mike too.

So when Jimmy was getting torn apart by the man he looked up to his entire life, his brother Chuck(Michael McKean), last week, the idea was the audience should have felt as bad as Jimmy. If the lead character gets ripped like that, it must have a monumental effect on its viewing audience. That was the end of innocence for Jimmy and the slow unveiling of Saul Goodman right there when Chuck defied him.

Instead, I wanted more scenes with Mike. His speech to the drug dealer(or the younger version of Walter White) described the entire series message. How individual people must decide where their moral compass lies and how much criminal behavior makes them a truly bad person. The speech was so good I watched it three times. It was so good and didn’t involve Odenkirk’s Jimmy at all. That’s not good. At this point in the series, Jimmy has to be taking over. He’s gotten a fair amount of screen time, but nine hours in, doesn’t have control over his show.

Maybe this will change. Things could get better. After all, Breaking Bad’s first season wasn’t its strongest. Setting up an origin tale does take time and will cost AMC viewers.  In the second season, when Saul goes “full criminal”, there could be some delight in the character finally slipping into the skin of a more dangerous guy who recognizes what he has to be. Odenkirk is a talented guy and when he dials back the sleazy humor and bad jokes, the man is entertaining to watch. Just don’t be surprised if more Breaking Bad hints are dropped and Jesse and Walter show up when the ratings get really bad. The writers can lean on their golden goose just in case the new baby gets in trouble. That’s what worries me.

Will Better Call Saul ever become its own show and great in its own right? Right now, I don’t think so. There’s really great character on it and a bunch of okay performers. If, for some reason, Banks wasn’t going to return in Season 2(he is, so don’t panic), I wouldn’t watch the show. If that doesn’t spell trouble, I don’t know what does in the television business.

Better Call Saul is a decent show. It may be good. Next season, it may even occasionally be very good. Until it figures out how to properly set its tone in one place and make the lead character its most vital and interesting piece, it will never be a great show. It will be a show that uses another show, Breaking Bad, as a crutch. That’s the sad but true reveal here folks.

Is it a show worth watching? Sure. Is it appointment television? Nope. Far from it. AMC’s new series is living off the riches from the network’s original series instead of building its own empire. I am no lawyer, but that’s bad business.

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