Better Call Saul: A Quality Study
I scoffed when I heard they were doing a spin-off from Breaking Bad about the slimy lawyer Saul. I thought just let it go. But after I watched the pilot to Better Call Saul, I thought maybe I was wrong. The quality in the pilot episode is astounding. The reason it is so amazing is a simple thing called Time. The pilot takes it's time. The opening 5 minutes a black and white montage with no dialogue is the perfect coda to Breaking Bad. It is followed up by 55 minutes of pure confidence. What I hate most about pilots is they try to tell us everything in an hour. This show left many questions open for us. By the end of the hour his name isn't even Saul yet. I like the time and patience of they took in this pilot. Most of that comes with the knowledge that AMC would have green lit anything Vince Gilligan presented to them. Vince Gilligan is the best working director on TV right now. He has the prowess and gravitas of a Quentin Tarantino. There is no doubt he has a vision. His use of focus and blocking was amazing for television. I could have turned off the sound and just watched the pictures he shot and been happy. I miss how TV used to be about directing in the 1990's. For the most part that has been replaced with quick cuts and montages. I must admit the story for the pilot was predictable, but that is what comes with starting a show with an already known character. If all of a sudden the rules changed, that would be bad. My long term question is where are the female characters? Part of what made Breaking Bad work was how every male had a female to go up against. It was why everyone hated Skyler White and Marie Schrader. I am hoping we get a slimy female to match our slimy Bob Odenkirk. And as of the second episode, which aired 24 hours later, we still don't really see one. In fact, in the two episodes, I am fairly certain a female has not a plot moving line of dialogue, in English. Both episodes did have mysterious women in the background (maybe the same one) as if to tell us, they are coming. I am sure one is, but she should show herself in episode 3.
Before I move on to episode 2, let me just throw a thought out there. The person who really has to be shaking his head with this pilot is poor Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men. Oh, how he will long to be the golden boy of television like he was 6 years ago. Now his Mad Men has to follow this show to finish up. I actually laughed out loud when I saw a promo for the final episodes during Better Call Saul. Let this be a lesson to every producer who comes back for the money season and then stays another season after that season, because it will be open season on you when you do. (I apologize to my English teacher for that sentence, but not to Matt. I will enjoy watching Mad Men limp off the television stage.)
24 hours after a masterfully directed episode aired, they air episode 2. The quality just wasn't there. Most pilots set up a directing tone and it is followed through out the series. In Episode 2, they went with jump cuts, just like we see on every other show, and they didn't do any of the off focus shots that filled the pilot. They went to straight head shots, just like we see on every other show. They also made a mistake. I hate mistakes in television. And from Breaking Bad, we really don't expect mistakes. When Saul was at Chuck's house he said he takes his coffee with milk. They said this just so we could be reminded that Chuck doesn't have a fridge. Then they immediately followed with a 5 minute music montage, just like every other show does, showing him ordering black coffee at least 20 times. A small detail, but we have been trained to expect that everything is in the details. I was not happy to see something like this slip by. Mostly because how he takes his coffee is irrelevant, so why do the set up?
I think AMC, should have let a week pass before making us compare the pilot with episode 2. It was just television in episode 2 and I was so longing for something more, something confident. I am wondering if this will be a bit like Twin Peaks. The episodes that everyone loved were the ones directed by David Lynch. You needed Lynch's touch to truly make it Twin Peaks. You might just need Vince to be the director to keep it going. I truly missed Vince's directing in episode 2 and without it, it was just a fine hour of television. I will be glad to wait a week to let the dust settle and reserve my overall opinion of the show after a few more episodes air. I am not scoffing, but I am not busting out the Chrystal Meth yet, if you know what I mean.
Check out our podcast on the Finale of Breaking Bad