Making the Case for ‘Better Call Saul’

Note: Over the next two weeks, the Awards Daily TV Crew will be making the case for each nominee in the Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series categories in random order. We’ll be dropping one each day leading into and through the Emmy voting period. Share/retweet your favorites to build the buzz!

Better Call Saul

Metacritic: 78
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Number of nominations: 7
Major nominations: Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor Drama Series – Bob Odenkirk, Outstanding Supporting Actor Drama Series, Jonathan Banks

Once upon a time, Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad. Half-way through the second season, in an episode written by Peter Gould, Walt and Jesse feel the need to take it upon themselves to get the help of a rather low-level lawyer who has cheesy TV adverts broadcasting in the middle of the night. His name is Saul Goodman. Saul will likely represent you in all things dodgy, but he is something of a smart egg, and here negotiates his way from being kidnapped and threatened to being the paid “legal” aid of Walt. Saul instantly became a fan favorite, one of the most popular supporting characters on television at that time. And his appeal had so much longevity, that Gilligan and Gould have teamed up once again to produce a show were Saul is in actual fact the central character.

Better Call Saul (which was the name of that first Saul-appearance episode back in 2009) is a kind of spin-off, but takes place years before the events in Breaking Bad – barring the opening montage of the very first episode of Better Call Saul which appears to take place much later. of course, Bob Odenkirk reprises the role he barely had time to shake off. As of yet, in the 10 episodes of this extremely successful first season (a 13-episode second season already confirmed), there are no signs of Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, or Skylar or Hank, but thankfully there is a grand contribution from Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut – another favorite from Breaking Bad.

From pre-production discussions right through to the current audience reactions, the debate has been stirring as to whether Better Call Saul is actually a drama or a comedy. And you can understand the varying perceptions given the humor of the character and his predicaments, as well as the refreshingly affecting and serious sprinkles of drama this show clearly has. My view? Most definitely a drama with a whimsical central character. Better Call Saul then is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the days before Saul was called Saul, in fact his original name is Jimmy McGill. The show also features strong roles for Michael McKean as Jimmy’s brother Chuck, Patrick Fabian as Howard Hamlin, Chuck’s law firm partner, and Rhea Seehorn as former associate, current friend, and not-quite-love-interest Kim Wexler.

Jimmy is ambitious, trying to work his way out of his storage room office through the back of a nail salon to make it big as a lawyer. One of the sad things with learn early on is that Jimmy also appears to be living there. A lot of his time and energy though is spent acting as a kind of care-giver to his brother Chuck, who was a successful law firm partner, but now claiming to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, thus becoming a recluse. Mike is a toll booth operator, he and Jimmy share semi-hostile banter, but he ultimately can not resist a piece of the action. They soon team up to out-fox a fraudulent family, and to foil a couple of detectives, among other escapades – there is of course something in it for both of them.

I’ll hold my hands up now and say Better Call Saul is breath of fresh air as far as television goes. Somehow holding onto a little bit of that tension and unpredictability of the Breaking Bad days, without appearing to copy it nor is it in any way gimmicky or without depth. The initial skateboarding scam is farcical at first, but always enjoyable, and transforms into borderline thriller material by the time Tuco Salamanca (remember him?) shows up and a couple of legs are broken. From there we venture through the old firm and it’s bad treatment of Jimmy, all the while he tries to stay on his feet and stay one step ahead of whatever life throws at him next.

The show uses flashbacks on numerous occasions too, and never do they seem out place or mis-used. They take the narrative back a few years, there were times when Jimmy was in trouble with the law and it was Chuck who helped him out of a pickle – seemingly not wanting Jimmy to stray and get his life in order. We also discover a close friend of Jimmy’s with whom he had a fake Rolex scam going on, a story-thread that is prominent in the final episode of the season. The most memorable flashbacks though are dedicated to Mike, as we see the backstory of his own son, who also was a police officer, involved in police corruption. We see Mike at his most broken, as well as his most ruthless, and it is some of the most compelling TV in years.

Like the show itself, Jimmy wanders in and around the more comical side of everyday life, while juggling the true dramas that surround him. But he is a smart, calculated man, and great fun to watch. There is a brilliant homage to All That Jazz as Jimmy echoes Joe Gideon’s “It’s showtime!” daily routine, painting a little bit of glitz into his current tensions. Another sea-saw sequence has Jimmy searching comically in a dumpster for shredded documents, only to be rifling through the wrong one to begin with. Later, completely exhausted, he falls asleep surrounded by paper shavings, and Chuck sneaks in to help him assemble some crucial documents. A sweet moment indeed. The tragic paradox comes much later in the season when we learn the cruel truth about Chuck’s opinion of Jimmy’s true worth. We love Jimmy, you have little choice, when he is lying his way out of a tight spot, or when he is losing his shit in a bingo hall, or shutting himself in an office to sob at the despair of potential failure.

There’s a ridiculously strong case for acting nominees Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks to win an Emmy here – be it one or the other or both. Odenkirk consistently oozes charm and ultimate likability in his acting here. He has no problem carrying the show as the lead, and a further credit to him is his vulnerable side that shines through at just the right times. Banks brings with him the gruff, dead-pan crook from the Breaking Bad days, but is far more sedate in these prior story-lines. Brilliant throughout, he of course peaks in the episode dedicated to Mike and the poignant revenge flashback following the death of his son. Whether the votes tally up their way or not, their appeal contributes heavily to the already real popularity and momentum for Better Call Saul – more than enough energy to keep it in serious contention to nab that Outstanding Drama Series prize. And this would be no surprise.

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