Better Call Saul returned to our screens Monday night and the season three opener, continuing the story of loveable rogue Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), his loathsome, elder golden-boy brother, Chuck (Michael McKean) et al where we left off, made a welcome, relaxed and thrilling sight for sore eyes.
But what makes a show where so much of the tension boils down to great writing, its inherent bold characterization and interplay there within, and masterful acting – a show in which it could be argued very little happens – so Goddamned great?
Yes, Better Call Saul is more tortoise than hare, but it is this steady hand, this mastery of the craft of television that allows a crew of recognisable Breaking Bad alumni; from universe creator Vince Gilligan to Writer/Producers Gennifer Hutchinson and Peter Gould, Director Michelle MacLaren, Editors Skip McDonald and Kelley Dixon, Production Designers Tony Fanning and Michael Novotny and Art Director Paula Dal Santo to bring their A-game week in, week out that makes Better Call Saul both such a delight to watch and the antithesis of America right now. You see, if you were lucky enough to be born outside The States, you’ll know that America can be summed up in three little words.
You see, if you were lucky enough to be born outside The States, you’ll know that America can be summed up in three little words.
Don’t get me wrong, so much incredible art, literature, science, philosophy, music… everything (except wrestling) has come out of America and it is without a shadow of a doubt the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited, but there is also something very wrong, as if a potent witches’ brew is intoxicating the nation like spiked punch at a high school Hallowe’en party.
For those who fill their bellies with the River Lethe’s waters, the id is drowned out; shouted down by their super-egos. Inferiority complexes become disguised under layer upon layer of fake braggadocio and they are left drunk in a stupor, face down in a pool of their own, vomited shame. It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that citizens who feel the need to proclaim their country the best at everything in the Goddamned world, or who proclaim themselves the best at
It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that citizens who feel the need to proclaim their country the best at everything in the Goddamned world, or who proclaim themselves the best at x or y at any opportunity and without being asked, are hiding their true inner selves. I’m sorry, friends – if you believe America is the best country in the world…
and to prove it, I’m going to have to take down The USA’s most popular sport by way of example.
Whilst flat-out volunteering The Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in the world (it isn’t; it attracts a paltry 1/30th of FIFA World Cup television audiences) American Football isn’t actually a sport at all.
At best, it’s a war game of tactical territorial pissings played out by armchair generals. At worst, it’s a court case on a gridiron which not even the officials seem to understand. You need to be a stoned, insane lawyer to digest its bizarre and purposefully discombobulating legalese… and that’s without mentioning the draft system.
46 interchangeable “athletes” (some of them just plain old fat) take turns being substituted on and off the field for seconds at a time; microcosms of action in amongst an average NFL game’s three and a half to four hours. Most of which time is taken up by coaches discussing tactics… and hidden somewhere in those 240 minutes of adverts promoting the beauty of war, chest-beating, pick-up truck driving, tool-wielding machismo and silicon implant lies an average of 11 minutes of game-time when the “ball” is actually in play.
Receivers and cornerbacks, the players who run the furthest in NFL games, run an average of 1.25 miles (2.0 km) per game, over 16 games in a 17 week season (plus two playoffs) to get to The Super Bowl. That’s a gruelling 209 minutes of sport per year!
Perhaps they’re called receivers because they’re constantly receiving instructions from coaches via radios in their helmets but as for the “Super” tag for something so distinctively moribund – well that just about sums up everything I’m talking about.
Compare and contrast to real football, where just three substitutes are allowed per game, midfielders can run up to 10 miles (15km) per game over almost sixty 90-minute games per season, sometimes playing thrice a week, and across half a dozen competitions where the ball is in play five or six times longer than the NFL. A ball which, in order to score a goal past a keeper’s hands must sometimes be hit into a space literally no bigger than the ball itself.
Yet NFL fans will still maintain to soccer fans their NFL players are fitter, faster and more skilful… even though their sportsmen must only throw, catch, or run with a ball across any part of a 53-yard byline. Wearing armour.
I’ve chosen this one, facile sporting example as just one trite glimpse into American life, but style over substance pervades every facet of US culture. Viewed from outside, it’s easy to see that their stodgy, artificial food – apparently the “best in the world” – contains chemicals banned from European food. Many Americans have never tasted real ale or chocolate and the most northern ones feel forced to drive to Canada to lay their hands on real cheese.
Their politics resembles a gaudy 1980’s game show… the list goes on but through the fog of fugazi, this TV show is the opposite. No hype, no hyperbole, no glitz, no cheerleaders. Better Call Saul is a self-aware, fully functioning adult.
And just like Jimmy McGill’s brightly colored, badly-attired lawyer, America is the used car salesman of the world.
If Mr Robot is Sam Esmail’s wink and nod to movies, paying homage to everyone and everything from Scorsese’s and Lumet’s New York, Travis Bickle’s isolation, Kubrick’s mise en scène, De Palma’s paranoia and
Carol Reed’s Orson Welles’ The Third Man, then Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul is an homage to the beauty of the slow moving image.
Pure, unadulterated, majestic slow motion magic. Like a passengerless car rolling backwards down a hill towards a baby carriage.
Even when the fast pace of time lapse videography so often takes the endless desert skies from day to night (and should speed things up) there’s a certain serenity to the New Mexico backdrop. A calm which invokes feelings as if watching proceedings from atop a distant Mount Olympus.
Better Call Saul makes Gods of us all, watching these vulnerable, mortal little humans play out their tragedies through a magical, time-numbing telescope.
Either that or crystal meth addicts, high as kites on Heisenberg’s latest batch of Blue Sky and lazily watching someone else’s life unfurl before donut-glazed eyes with noses pressed up against a rainy windshield. No other show on television would devote almost ten and half minutes (one fifth of the total runtime) to a character finding a note, stripping his car for a bug, then finding and writing down that transmitter’s serial number, but that’s precisely what these Breaking Bad alum, masters of their craft do in every episode and it somehow delivers you to the edge of your seat every time.
In fact, on another show, those ten and a half minutes would have been condensed into two but Better Call Saul elongates the mundane and in doing so, makes an artform out of Mike Ehrmantraut’s plodding, pragmatic, good-old fashioned TV detective work.
Jonathan Banks’ near-silent performances are are almost as mesmerising as the show’s sense of perfect, balletic beauty.
Maybe The United States should be more like Mike – calm, measured, thoughtful, thinking before they speak and less like eager-to-be-loved, neurotic, wise-talkin’ criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill.
Better Call Saul season three continues Monday nights on AMC. Miss it at your peril.
Oh, despite a worrying 8 years age difference, can someone please cast Jonathan Banks as Bruce Willis’ Die Hard dad, already? Thanks.