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What The Hell Is Better Call Saul Doing?

This show could be about anything.

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Better Call Saul finished up its third season last Sunday, and I am in it. I’m a huge Kim fan. Jimmy is hilarious when he wants to be, and thoughtful when he doesn’t. Re: Chuck (spoilers), couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. And I’m happy to watch Tio Salamanca move further and further across whatever timeline ends up with him in a wheelchair with a bomb strapped to his seat. That said, I still don’t think I could tell you what Better Call Saul is actually about.

Forget that by this point in Breaking Bad’s timeline, it was on fire. That comparison has been obsolete for a while now. Saul’s cleverest moments have been proof that the creators should’ve left the Breaking Bad universe, but they didn’t, so this is what we have, and comparing it to the gold standard just feels mean and unnecessary. However, I don’t think that excuses Saul from the criteria we look for in any good one-hour drama: things happening.

Once, Saul was about a couple that embezzled some money, and one lawyer’s quest to track them down. At one point, it was about a kind but hardened old man coming to terms with the role he played in his son’s murder, and atoning for it by playing a larger role in his daughter-in-law’s and granddaughter’s lives. For most of the show, it’s been about the friction between two law-savvy brothers, one of whom is a huge asshole.

Those were all very watchable stories. None of them amounted to a very good seasonal arc.

My concern with Saul is that it seems to hit the reset button every time it runs out of gas. Breaking Bad’s strength was that it knew exactly how much gas it had in the tank, and managed to stick the landing every season. I know I said I wouldn’t make that comparison, but I also said that these are things we look for in all good TV dramas. At the moment, Saul isn’t delivering on that front, and three seasons is more than long enough to figure out how to do that. Any of this season’s strongest episodes (“Chicanery” was my favorite) could have been every bit as fitting a finale as the one that aired Sunday. There’s a sense of urgency that’s missing right now.

Meanwhile, I can’t find any essential purpose for the long, quiet sequences of Mike doing stuff or standoffs between drug cartel adversaries than to occupy minutes of screen time. They’re cool to watch, but haven’t had anything meaningful to contribute to the show’s arc for a while now, and they make me wonder if Saul wouldn’t be better off as a Saul-centric half-hour dramedy like Atlanta or Ballers.

Mike, Nacho and Gus are in a completely different lane from the show’s title character. Hell, they’re on different roads. It’s fun to see the background of Breaking Bad characters furnished, but it seems like the only reasons it’s happening are A) because fans asked and B) because an episode needs to be 42 minutes one way or another. Three seasons deep feels like long enough to create a connection between the cartel and Saul, more than has already existed.

The real bummer is that amid all this narrative filibustering and wheel-spinning from ancillary characters, Saul has the makings of a super interesting show. Chuck, Howard, Saul and Kim are extraordinarily watchable. I want more Priscilla, though I know she appears in Breaking Bad. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s adventures as a capable but sandbagged elder lawyer are a riot. I want more of that, too.

But when we return from commercial and end up on a dirt road at sunset, I roll my eyes because I know there won’t be any more dialogue for the next 15 minutes. This wouldn’t be a problem if those sequences felt in any way essential. Breaking Bad did it and did it well. Maybe the people guiltiest of making the Breaking Bad comparison are Saul’s own showrunners, who keep trying to fit a square peg into a circular hole. The result is that the show has the appearance of trying way too hard to emulate the style and tone of the show that created it.

I love Mike, I love Gus, and I’ve grown to love Nacho. But I’d gladly trade any one their stories this season for more time with Jimmy McGill. I don’t care if it loses supporting actor Emmy noms. Saul is run by top notch writers. It’s time they thought a little bit about who we really sat down to watch.

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