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Monitor: Better Call Saul and Going Back to the Well

Monitor is a new bi-weekly column from Aaron Yap. Each edition will see him critically examine a new show or trend in current television. First up is Better Call Saul. //

Much has been made about modern mainstream cinema’s over-reliance on mining existing properties for content. More than ever, the studios are operating in a safety bubble, with the perception that the built-in audience of sequels, franchises, adaptations of best-selling novels, et al will guarantee generous box office receipts.

A similar thing is happening on TV too. The number of high profile adaptations of novels (Game of Thrones, Outlander, Bosch, Man in the High Castle), comic books (Arrow, Gotham, The Flash) and films (Fargo, Twelve Monkeys, Westworld) are on the increase, as are reboots and resurrections (Arrested Development, 24, Heroes: Reborn, Twin Peaks). The extensive property-mining is partly driven by the current climate of fierce content competition among internet giants like Netflix and Amazon, both out to bait viewers with hooky binge-watching prospects.

The difference is that the trend hasn’t yet met with the same amount of critical jeering and consternation. There’s certainly no “TV is dead” flag-waving – on the contrary, with a generally higher standard of craft, and level of narrative freedom, the outcome for television hasn’t been nearly so problematic. Shows like Fargo, Bates Motel and Hannibal have proven the medium can successfully retool previously cinematic properties (the latter two already based on books) for the small screen in bracingly fresh, surprisingly nuanced ways. In other words, they could essentially function as their own unique entity, divorced from the memory of their source.

One hopes that cow-milking spinoff-of-the-moment Better Call Saul too will discover its own identity. Upon hearing the news that Vince Gilligan would dip back into the world of Breaking Bad – the crowning achievement of his career – so soon after wrapping it up, I couldn’t have been more indifferent. The thought of spending more hours with Heisenberg’s lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the show’s go-to comic relief/tension-diffuser, held little appeal. Saul’s an entertaining dude, but if I had to origin-story a Breaking Bad character, it would be Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), whose granite-hard exterior might have offered many elements to chip away at.

Another issue is that one of Breaking Bad’s chief distinctions was the unusually rock-solid tightness of its storytelling; there were no shark jumping, filler episodes, or strained mythology. Thus I was hesitant to remember it other than the thing that it was. I was done when Walter was done. Anything more could tip the scale, so to speak.

On evidence of its first three episodes, Better Call Saul hasn’t yet moved beyond an entertainingly breezy diversion, nor has it completely escaped the understandable temptation to service Breaking Bad fans. Aesthetically, it feels like the same universe: the cold opens, the Albuquerque desert, the POV shots, the music montages and callbacks.

It’s as if Breaking Bad hadn’t ended, only re-awoken in a dream-like alternate reality. Mike, our favourite no-nonsense private eye is now as a no-nonsense car park attendant; trigger-happy drug lord Tuco (Raymond Cruz) pops up in a cushy suburban home, wearing an… apron? Gilligan’s definitely getting a kick out of these how-they-met scenarios, but the cute is turned up a little high at this stage.

As for Saul himself, he’s not quite Saul yet. Instead he’s James McGill, a low-rent public defender framed like your classic, crumpled, down-and-out noir chump who just can’t catch a break. Living out of a shitty shoebox office at the back of a Thai nail salon, McGill is a long way from being an established pro at the game, but he soon gets to test his crafty, weaselly mettle through a satisfying and intricately staged caper.

This involves an obnoxious pair of scamming skateboarding twins, a seven-figure embezzlement case, and Tuco’s more level-headed business partner Nacho (Michael Mando). These moments play to Gilligan’s plotting strengths, and fans will immediately recognise Breaking Bad’s jet-black sense of humour and sweaty, harrowing intensity.

Sporting the most distracting hairpiece this side of Corey Stoll’s now-legendarily awful mop in The Strain, Odenkirk proves to an engagingly wily, underdog presence. Given room to stretch over 45 minutes he swiftly allayed my fear that Saul’s tics – the foot-in-mouth clumsiness, the flamboyant manner – would wear thin.

Promisingly, the show doesn’t underestimate the goofball’s dramatic potential. A key subplot introduces us to McGill’s older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a former partner at a lofty law firm who’s now a mentally ill shut-in, paranoid about the effects of electromagnetism (what’s with Gilligan and magnets?). I’m particularly interested in seeing how this relationship will play out, as it could turn out to be one of the emotional, potentially tragic triggers to McGill’s eventual transformation into the Saul of Bad.

Thus far, the show’s most compelling sequence, just by being so tethered to the aftermath of Breaking Bad, is episode one’s bittersweet black-and-white flash-forwards to Saul as a lowly worker at a Cinnabon bakery. There’s a tremendous charge to this sequence, our first concrete glimpse of a post-Heisengate timeline, which has evaded us since the close of “Felina”.

So Better Call Saul hasn’t been able to kick that massive elephant out of the room so far – it’s not yet what I’d call a “mandatory” show. But it’s evident that Gilligan and his writers are having enormous fun with the character, and it’s rubbing off on me.

Lightbox users: get to know Jimmy McGill a little better by watching Better Call Saul (and Hannibal, and Outlander and) here

Everyone else: click here to start your free trial (12 months for Spark customers; 30 days for everyone else).

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