Why aren’t more people talking about “Better Call Saul,” which is arguably the best show on television right at this very moment? (Or at least until “The Americans” starts up again.)
“Better Call Saul” — the prequel to “Breaking Bad,” — relates the story of how Walter White’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman came into being. It has the same pedigree as “Breaking Bad,”with Vince Gilligan as the creator/showrunner and writer/director/comedian Bob Odenkirk as the title character. Like “Breaking Bad,” it’s set in New Mexico and features the same taut dialogue, beautiful photography and creative direction. It’s absorbing and terrific to look at.
Alas, what it doesn’t have is a lot of buzz.
Determining whether a TV show is part of the national zeitgeist is pretty subjective exercise but there are objective ways of going about it. The first clue is that whenever I try to share my excitement about the show I can’t find anyone else who’s watching it. Then there’s the commentariat. Last year Slate.com dedicated a weekly podcast to the show but there’s nothing similar this year; in fact, it rarely comes up in other podcasts that discuss the best shows of the week. And in the online world, there aren’t as many weekly recaps as there were last year.
The TV ratings seem to be OK – decent when recorded viewing is added back in, but not spectacular. As for social media — the keenest measure of “buzz” — it isn’t a social media leader among the published social media indexes.
So what gives? I’m half-inclined to say it’s “too good” to generate a wide audience. Unlike “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” isn’t violent or focused on the exploits of a criminal mastermind. Instead it’s a perceptive character study about a small-time lawyer named Jimmy McGill who has a predilection for walking on the wild side.
The season one the narrative arc revolved around Jimmy’s attempt to prove himself to his older brother, who’s a brilliant but eccentric lawyer, and. In season two, Jimmy has shown himself to be a capable lawyer, but he can’t help but be attracted to the thrill he gets from scamming greedy and obnoxious marks.
Jimmy’s legal hi-jinks are always amusing and frequently hilarious – funnier than half the sitcoms on TV to be honest. And the story is absorbing because you know it’s leading up to the moment when Jimmy transforms from an honest but somewhat slippery lawyer into the outright morally dubious criminal attorney Saul Goodman. The brilliance of the show is that this seems inevitable in retrospect but really isn’t. Jimmy is constituted a certain way but he does have free will; he is making conscious decision after conscious decision that are incrementally turning him into Saul Goodman.
I’d like to think that in a different TV environment this show would generate huge attention. But here’s the thing. I argued earlier that “Better Call Saul,” was the best show on TV right now, but the truth is that I don’t really know. People keep telling me about other great shows that I don’t have the chance to watch. I’ve received so many suggestions that I can’t even remember them anymore.
I don’t get Showtime so I immediately write-off all those shows, and I’m pretty sure we don’t get BBC America so there’s another category of shows I don’t worry about. But I only scratch the surface on HBO, FX, AMC and the other prestige networks. “Better Call Saul’s” network AMC has another show, “Halt and Catch Fire,” that I’d love to watch but until I become a full-time TV critic I don’t think I’ll have time to do that.
Given the fragmented TV audience, it’s hard to think of many shows that actually do have buzz. “Downton Abbey” had serious buzz at the end of its run. “Saturday Night Live” has it when it has a good host; so does “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” when it produces a particularly amusing video segment. The return of “House of Cards” generated some water cooler conversation as will the next season of “Game of Thrones” when it premieres next month. But none of these shows can monopolize the national conversation in the way that “Who shot J.R.” did 35 years ago, or that “Girls” did even as recently as five years ago.
I was at a small Manhattan dinner party a few weekends back and the four couples had a fairly extensive discussion about the movies that were nominated for the Academy Awards, but when we switched to television, there was not one show that even half of us had in common. I tried to get everyone interested in “Better Call Saul” with a complete lack of success. Too bad, because it’s a great show and deserves more attention.
In a world with so much choice, a show like “Better Call Saul” falls through the cracks, buzz-wise. As do dozens of other really good shows. There are worse problems to have but there are days when I wish I didn’t feel like I was watching TV in my own personal vacuum.