For another catch-up post this month of May 2015, I have some pros and cons on the show Better Call Saul. If you have not watched the series yet – you may want to skip this post – and for those not in the mood to read so much – please feel free to just skip this and maybe check out my recent street shots post- HERE.
I decided to write my informal take on the show because it seems like so many reviewers leave out the shortcomings. And when I recently watched the AMC recap video of Better Call Saul, the Creators talked about upcoming Season 2 with a sense of grandeur and successful pride that did not necessarily align with what I think was actually delivered. I hear folks say it is “visually stunning” – without noting it is also slow on action, void of plot, and uses immature comedy that is not really funny. It seems like so much time was spent on miscellaneous or foundational stuff that we were left NOT wanting more. The season ended with a disjointed feeling and someone in the Priorhouse described the overall series as, “Ho-hum with no real plot.”
Pro 1– The filming and cinematography in some episodes was artsy and incredible. Yes, I agree… “Visually stunning”
Pro 2- The show does not use a ton of swear words, but I think I would rather hear a few f-bombs instead of “God-D***-it” so much.
Pro 3– The show does NOT have inappropriate sex scenes – like kinky or suggestive scenes that some other shows use to get ratings. I really appreciate this for a few reasons.
Pro 4– The story showed some background and connections to Breaking Bad – which I guess are called Saulbacks (more here).
Pro 5 – No ad placement and no products from high paying sponsors (or none that I noticed), which is just nice because sometimes it feels like the world is filled with so much commercial saturation and it is nice to not have that in a show.
Pro 6 – Some scenes touched upon tasty social issues and relationship areas that are great discussion topics. You know, topics that are universal and important to chew on from different angles as we go about life. And Better Call Saul includes issues like set back, one’s lot in life, choices, coping, illness, career, lifestyle, disappointments, financial hardship, stress meltdown, and not being validated by a sibling. One great scene came from an early episode, where Chuck and Jimmy are in a heavy talk and Chuck says, “It’s only money.” Great scene and the layered message behind a statement like “It’s only money” is a pivot point for rich discussion. Also, that scene reminded us of the way “money” was integrated into the Breaking Bad storyline – from “stackin’ the Benji’s” to the potent “You have to learn to be rich” scene with Gus and Walt. I can think of at least 30 more excellent Better Call Saul scenes, (like when Jimmy rescued the skateboarders, Mike’s scene with the vet and when he was in Chicago, and when Jimmy has the meltdown in the empty office); so while I do think that Jimmy (Bob Odinkirk) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) give Emmy-worthy acting – it is not really enough to make up for the cons of the show, which I will get to next.
Con 1– A couple “off” acting scenes. While the acting was good in Better Call Saul (actually great most of the time) there were a couple of times when the scenes were SO slow the acting felt forced. For example, Jimmy and Kim were sitting at the salon after hours and Kim gets a phone call.
Jimmy tries to act surprised and it seemed like he was acting, which is not what you are supposed to notice while watching. Another example happened in the hospital scene. Jimmy and Kim go there to help Chuck and when Hamlin shows up, Kim comes walking out and when she acts surprised to see Hamlin, it just made one cringe. It did not feel natural and just pulled from the scene and felt misdirected. Now these two examples are such minor things, but little details like this separate the okay shows from the great ones.
Con 2– Lack of a unified plot and lackluster feeling. While some episodes were riveting – the disparity amid episodes felt like watching an adolescent girl changing outfits to explore a new identity expression each week. I guess more than 4 or 5 different directors contributed to different episodes and while many times this variety works, other times it does not. We had scenes that felt like succinct Breaking Bad extensions, like Mike in Chicago pretending to be drunk and then taking care of business. But then other episodes felt like a modern version of the Matlock show that was possibly aimed for expanding the viewership to the senior crowd across the world. Now sure, the Jell-O-cup advertising was slightly funny, I guess… and so was the scene with the elderly lady with her chair lift and small figurine collection, but how much of this material is really needed? Maybe season 1 was used to drop too many of those “Easter eggs” and maybe while trying to be artsy and symbolic, they failed to deliver a meaningful episode each week.
Con 3– Poor use of humor. Integrating humor into a series is a nice idea, and I already noted the Jell-O ads and other things were “kind of” funny, but in my very humble opinion, bathroom humor is always a grey area. Further, using 4th grade poop humor is never a good idea and can be insulting to a viewer. The scene with the toilet was when I fully realized something was amiss with BCS.
The talking toilet that commented when it received poop was sophomoric, stupid and not believable. However, at first it felt like I was trying to point out the Emperor was not wearing any clothes – you know – everyone seemed to have the Breaking Bad rose-colored glasses, um, I mean blue-colored lenses – ha! However, as the season progressed “everyone” agreed something was off with Better Call Saul – and the Breaking Bad buzz subsided as reality set in.
I understand that the writers were being creative and taking a chance with new ideas; in fact, Jennifer and I were chatting about this recently in a comment section – because we all know that creative risk comes with mess and even flop. It is flop that sometimes leads to much greatness and while I am NOT saying BCS is a complete flop, I do think it was annoying at times. Like with the Chicago Sunroof – really? In this sunroof mention scene, Jimmy is calling numbers for senior Bingo and he has his meltdown. They were trying to show that Jimmy had reached a breaking point and as Jimmy is trying to carry on, he begins to process out loud. Jimmy reflects back on the memories of “poop through a sunroof” and walks out.
However, the worse use of humor (IMO) for the entire Better Call Saul series was saving the Kevin Costner joke for the season finale. When someone is a doppelganger of someone else – it is NOT funny to use this as your big joke at the end. The Costner/Saul joke was slightly funny in Breaking Bad, but the real reason that Breaking Bad scene was so effective was also because they added in the psychology element (the note about how Saul believed it and so others did) – but you see, Odinkirk and Costner look a lot a like – and so joking around that Jimmy looked like Kevin Costner is not really that funny – because these two could pass as brothers even without the 3 a.m. beer goggles. There are so many other issues I have with the comedic attempts, but I will end this con with just one suggestion – if you want to integrate humor into some future episodes – you Better Call Jimmy… Jim Gaffigan that is!
Con 4– Overused the beater car. For those not in the know, some of the cars in Breaking Bad became iconic discussion pieces (i.e. the ugly Aztec, Jesse’s old red import, and the P.T. Cruiser). And who can forget the amazing “New Car Scene” (here) where Walter and his son rev up the engines in the driveway. Brilliant.
However, Jimmy’s yellow beater car in Better Call Saul was another poorly developed element and it felt like they “thought” the car was constantly adding more interest than it was. For example, the special camera angles of the yellow car and then the many scenes it appeared in – yeah – we get it – you think this car is just super funny – but it wasn’t anymore.
You see – when the beater car kept appearing so often – it became watered down and tired. It seems more plausible that the character of “slipping Jimmy” would have bought another used car (slight upgrade) before he put down all that money on the huge vacated office space. Maybe it was not time to buy the Cadillac yet, but come on guys – even a $2,000 used Camry would have been plausible – maybe all one color – or how about one of those station wagons they used in an earlier episode with the fake accidents?? When a viewer starts to wonder this kind of stuff – it is another indication that something is off.
Con 5– Boring scenes that wasted my time. I do not want to be one of those folks who complains about how precious their time is – but I only have so many hours each week for viewing TV and so I carefully choose how that time is spent. And sometimes while watching Better Call Saul, there were scenes that I wanted the ten minutes of my life back so I could have read or watched something else. For example, the scene with Mike and Jimmy as they banter over parking stamps and Jimmy has to go back and get stamps.
The back and forth action – with that yellow car as Mike sits in the booth – it was B-flat and felt like starter footage for someone learning how to space frames in iMovie. Also, the scene where Jimmy licked his finger and twirled it in his friend’s ear to wake him up, come on now- WTH! Or the time when Mike was talking to his daughter-in-law and she referred to some guys who were “thick as thieves” – nice simile, but in that scene it felt wrong.
Con 6– Forensics 101 ignored. Okay everyone –listen up – I guess I need to remind folks that police interrogation rooms have hidden cameras and audio recording equipment. This has been going on for decades now – just watch some early episodes of Forensic Files for examples- but someone seemed to miss this fact even in Breaking Bad (i.e. the time in BB when Saul covers the camera and then talks to Jesse in the interrogation room– well you can cover the small recorder with a coat, but what about the camera in the ceiling??) – Similarly. in Better Call Saul, episode 106, detectives question Mike in an interrogation room, but then off to the side, Mike asks Jimmy to spill some coffee on one of the detectives, which ends up being another one of those forced “oops” type of acting, but did they really think that federal buildings do not have extra cameras for listening in on stuff like this?
Another example is when Mike is sitting on a bench – talking underneath headshots, but all the tasty art in the scene is dissolved when we realize that the writers again forgot about Big Brother lurking in all government buildings. In fact, even grocery stores these days have “zoom cameras” with very nice audio recorders. So do you really think that a police station is not going to have surveillance that picks up on folks talking in rooms and halls?
Side note for the folks making the latest Jason Bourne movie (Bourne 5) – which I love and think the first three are truly great – but when Jason calls Pamela at work (and notices that Nikki is standing there or in another scene Jason tells Pam that she looks tired) well this is not realistic because federal work places do not ever leave the blinds open while they are in the middle of intense work. In fact, I think federal employees work in rooms without windows – and so it just helps when a show gets things like this correct.
Con 7– Chuck’s fragmented characterization. In Better Call Saul, episode 108, Chuck is presented as some freak with Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS)- which is considered by “some” to be a psychosomatic disorder. For those that want to know more about the very real possibility of electromagnetic pollution and how it can negatively impact the body, especially if someone has heavy metals and toxins accumulated in their tissues – go here, here, or here.
Anyhow, Chuck is supposed to be the brilliant one that helped build a powerful law firm, but he is also portrayed as a sloppy neurotic with perceived EHS disorder. There are inconsistencies in how he is depicted in episodes and it felt almost like ADD writing. In one episode, Chuck is running across the street with a silver blanket and then in a different episode he is now a suit-wearing power player at a law firm meeting. The disease impairment – even if psychosomatic for him – was not developed enough – it seemed like the writers were “newspaper skimming” for funky diseases and maybe chose this one because it was kind of edgy and ever so quirky; however, Chuck’s character never fully took shape.
Also, when we find out that Chuck does not believe in or support Jimmy in a lawyer role– the scene lost weight because Chuck’s character was so poorly developed. Further, I think the writers tried to “wow” us with the big reveal of Chuck not rooting for Jimmy – you know, the pain of not being supported or “believed in” – and while I think Odinkirk’s acting was brilliant as he showed the deep pain that is felt when a family member not only fails to see your potential, but then does things behind your back to hinder your success – the conflict still fell short. Using this incident as the big trump card was lame. This lack of sibling support is NOTHING NEW! Even in the Bible it notes how a “prophet is without honor in his own hometown” – And most people would agree that close family members are the first ones to kill a dream or are just unable to see the potential in someone they saw grow up and go through messy phases – it is nothing personal – it is just hard to change perceptions when you know a certain side to someone.
Con 8– Jimmy’s BIO not believable. Almost all of Season One of Better Call Saul was trying to show us what possibly led up to the life of crime for Jimmy (when he becomes the unscrupulous Saul in BB). The first problem with this aim is that you really cannot ever pinpoint what leads a person to do such and such. Sometimes there are major traumas or individual incidents that contribute, but we really cannot show what caused demise or what leads to a life of crime. Many times it is a medley-mix and just a human condition that overlaps with fear, culture, power, money and circumstance (and IMHO, if not for the grace of God who knows where so many of us could have ended up). So depicting Jimmy’s past was a mixed endeavor from the start and was likely not a good idea to stretch across an entire season. Even though at first – I liked the tender way they were showing a man worn down and parched, but still trying to do the right thing. This was so good. He floundered a bit, but tried hard to build his career and rise above the party life and move past the former Slipping Jimmy ways. The show also highlighted some nice details about life in the role of a hard-working, underpaid Public Defender and the crazy places to negotiate cases, but the slow-moving story got slower and slower.
Also with Jimmy, they really dropped the ball by not placing enough emphasis on Jimmy’s law school days. If you are going to do the early years on any character that has a noteworthy profession– put more thought into their schooling and then give us a path that is believable. Spend extra time to see if a scene makes the BS meter go off – like Jimmy’s secretly attending correspondence law school was a stretch. And then to gloss over the law school days in one episode!
In episode 8, we meet mailroom Jimmy. We are told that Jimmy worked in the mailroom, secretly attended correspondence law school (while working), and then took the bar exam a few times before he finally passed. This does not fit the character we have seen in Slipping Jimmy – and so just like Chuck’s character incoherently flows through episodes – Jimmy’s character feels misaligned.
Not using the law school days was a missed opportunity. It would have been more believable to have Jimmy barely making it to class – yet still grasping the law codes and litigious things – because after all – in both shows (BB and in BCS) we see Jimmy has the mind of an astute lawyer, he finds loopholes, and arguing smart is in his innate wiring! But the time-lapse version of his unbelievable school days did not fit this party guy, hustler we know in Jimmy. Instead – they should have had him attend some State school – where he barely made it to class – showed up just enough to pass – and then maybe he had moments of brilliance as he argued a point or used a precedent to impress a professor. They could have shown us a dysfunctional, immature law student who passed the bar with hangover breathe and took it only after crammed studying in between hustling and partying. Instead – the law school days are thrown in – like an aside – and we have this party-hustle guy who just so happened to also be stable enough to faithfully (and secretly) attend law school for years – all while usurping an introverted side – and then took the bar a few times – and just never gave up – to then go back to his extroverted hustling side? Argh. Does not add up.
I know I may be coming across as harsh with all my cons, but these are the kind of details that separate the “okay” from the “great” – And this scrutiny is what you get when you do a spin-off from the Indomitable Breaking Bad. They are the ones who set the bar this high. Maybe the writers should have started a brand new show instead of trying to spend so much time fumbling with a hodgepodge mix of what possibly could become a prequel for characters from one of the best shows ever.
Now sure, I could come up with more pros for Better Call Saul because there really were many great scenes, even though I am sure I missed some things because I had to use so much self-talk to quiet the inner critic. And maybe I was expecting more Breaking Bad essence. Each episode of Breaking Bad was like listening to the best storyteller ever– and as you were riveted with the narration, you were changed and moved because of the characters. Looking in on the Breaking Bad characters became an experience – whether it was watching Jesse cover for his brother when the joint was found, listening to Jane and Jesse discuss O’Keeffe art in the front seat of the car, or observing Walt and Skylar brainstorming on how to deliver a lie – — the coherent characterization in BB left you wanting more – left you needing more – because their exchanges provoked social issues, psychological layers, and at times, left you shaking your head in disbelief and shock. In contrast, most episodes of Better Call Saul left the viewer wondering when it was going to get better.
So much of Better Call Saul came up short (they broke bad?) as they failed to give us rich individual episodes and a universal whole. I understand that we are in a new era of binge watching and some shows are being released a full season at a time. So I get that shows are developed with concentrated viewing in mind, but for a new show to start off spending an entire season laying a sketchy, incoherent foundation – they missed giving us the weekly episode engagement and failed to give us developed characters. I recently heard that in an interview last June (2014), Vince Gilligan noted he was iffy about even making a prequel to BB, and maybe his ominous vibe was in tune with what was being filmed.
Better Call Saul is an okay show, but that’s it. Visually stunning, but overall – still just okay.
That’s it – have a great day and if you got this far – thanks for reading – peace out!