By JASON MARTIN (July 31, 2018)
I threw a poll out on Twitter last spring that raised a few eyebrows initially, because some wondered whether I was a prisoner of the moment or if I had completely lost my mind. Truthfully, I was merely paying attention to the trend, and me asking whether or not Better Call Saul was on its way to being a better series overall than Breaking Bad wasn’t at all outlandish.
How many spinoffs have surpassed the original source material? No one is going to take Frasier over Cheers, but it’s one where you could make an argument that the drop-off between the two was nearly negligible. Both series were brilliant. Frasier is one of the most decorated comedy series of all-time, with Kelsey Grammar winning around 15,687,398 awards for his portrayal of the lead character. The most successful example might be the ratings behemoth known as NCIS, which you may not realize was actually a spinoff of JAG. Family Matters had popularity Perfect Strangers never approached, and of course there’s The Simpsons, which spun from The Tracey Ullman Show.
If you look at most instances where the spinoff trumped the original, it’s a case where the latter wasn’t exactly a juggernaut. That’s where Frasier and today’s subject, Better Call Saul, have to be near the top of the list. You can argue that neither were better than their older sibling, but to say there’s a huge quality difference would be erroneous. Entertainment is subjective, but anyone that has watched Saul’s three season run knows just how special this second dip into the Albuquerque pool has been.
And I’m here to tell you, within minutes of the Season 4 opener, which premieres Sunday, August 6 at 9/8c, the trend continues to go up. The 2017 installments concluded on a major cliffhanger and it’s immediately addressed, as the fourth season opens just a few hours after the events that brought Season 3 to a close. I’m hesitant to spoil it, because I’m still not certain enough of you have actually watched Better Call Saul. It’s possible some of you jumped off board during the admittedly plodding, fairly slow start to the series a few years ago.
However, if you did, I’m telling you to fix that problem immediately. If you recall, Breaking Bad didn’t exactly start out on fire. The series opener was strong, but it took a little while to find its rhythm and no one will say the back half of the show wasn’t better than the first few seasons. Nothing was below par, but that’s also true of Saul. Also true of both is the magnificent casting and the performances across the two series. Bob Odenkirk is an absolute revelation. A comedy actor that worked on Mr. Show and did odd sketch appearances, he looked to be a little bit more of the Vince Gilligan comedy influence that also brought the likes of Bill Burr onto Breaking Bad.
But the Saul Goodman character, made for Odenkirk’s skill set, showed not only his range, but his immense talent. This performance is right up there with any acting work done this decade, and it doesn’t slow down in the new season. This set of episodes allows more depth than ever before as Jimmy McGill has to deal with a personal tragedy, while still navigating his professional life outside of the legal profession. The series continues to navigate the fact that we know how this story ends with precision. The last scene may well show “Saul” shake Walter White’s hand, or we may see something in black and white in an Omaha Cinnabon.
Just as every season before has started in Omaha, Season 4 is no exception, but in this snippet, we get a sense of how trapped Jimmy McGill is, even if he’s hiding out as the manager of a trendy mall eatery with an assumed name. There is no freedom for this man, not just from the world, but from himself, and it’s the same story we see in his past. He remains his own worst enemy, reacting and making rash decisions that cost him virtually every piece of stability in his life.
In Season 4, Rhea Seehorn reprises her role as Kim Wexler and she and McGill are living together. The chemistry between those two characters and the performers works beautifully, but we know Kim was never a part of Breaking Bad. So, we know it’s going to end poorly, and I’m not looking forward to however she exits the story before it comes to a conclusion. For now, she’s helping him through as difficult a time as he has ever faced and the two rely on one another in many ways for normalcy through transition and grief.
Everything you expect and anticipate from the start of a Saul season is in full effect. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) wants more information on his new employer, Gus Fring, and what exactly Madrigal Electromotive does as a company. He has some idea, but he wants more specifics. He also loves his daughter-in-law and his granddaughter, and Banks continues to shine. That’s the story for virtually everybody in the Saul cast. Michael Mando is outstanding, Patrick Fabian straddles the line between genuine and…well, not, and he does so quite well in his role as Howard Hamlin.
As a whole, the Better Call Saul cast is indeed better than Breaking Bad, which is no sleight to anybody on that show. They’re both loaded from top to bottom, but I enjoy the performances and the requirements of the second tier performances more on Saul than I did on Bad. It’s like comparing your favorite and second favorite foods. Others are in the discussion, sure, but these two are still about as good as it gets. I never understood the Anna Gunn hate, and reject it entirely.
Better Call Saul loses Michael McKean this year, which is a big loss. Chuck McGill was the most loathsome and simultaneously sympathetic character in recent memory on TV, and McKean was spectacular. You rooted against him, but you felt sorry for him, creating a balance of “I hate this guy” and “Man I hate this for him.” I disliked him immensely by the end, and that was by design of Gilligan and Peter Gould’s script.
Sadly, it’s not going to end well for Slippin’ Jimmy McGill, at least not in the long term, and as we’re now four seasons into Better Call Saul, we’re about to see even more heartache, and probably a lot of self-injurious decision making that will take our protagonist down the wrong path, likely away from the woman that should be his wife, and away from all sense of moral certitude.
But it makes phenomenal television. Season 4 doesn’t skip a beat from its predecessor. Saul is the rare show that is this deep into its run and each year feels like a build off all that came before. Each increases in intensity, and judging from the first three episodes of the 2018 season, each continues to increase in quality. Here at the Big6 Blog, you’ll get weekly detailed reviews and analysis of each episode beginning on August 6. I’m looking so forward to deep diving into this one with you guys. It’s one of TVs best, by any measure, and at this point I’m actually pained when people tell me they either only watched a few episodes or for some reason skipped it entirely.
Just like it was in Season 3, “S’aul good…man.”