The Weekend Binge – Better Call Saul? You Decide…

7th March 2015

For the latest in this series in ‘The Weekend Binge,’ I thought I’d mix things up a bit and instead of eulogising about series that you ‘must watch’ I want you to check out the much talked about Better Call Saul, which I’m still on the fence on (and that’s putting it politely) and let me know whether you agree with me or not…

Back in February I was quick to post a review of the Breaking Bad prequel’s pilot episode and in criticising that bad boy I received a bit of a backlash from viewers who are seemingly in agreement with those critics who commended Vince Gilligan’s latest creation. Of course, as a scriptwriter myself who has been unsuccessful in having a pilot commissioned outside of children’s content, I know how difficult it is to create a truly wonderful pilot and truth be told I could reel off a long list of series in which I’d say, “the pilot’s not great, but stick with it…” – I said exactly that in my recent Binge article on The Shield. So with that in mind, I’ve tried to stick with Better Call Saul and with five episodes out to date I can honestly say that it’s still failing to convince me.

Here’s my pilot review, and below that I’ve rounded up a few other things available on the likes of on demand services and Netflix, because you’re not going to fill up your weekend on 5 episodes of Better Call Saul now are you…

Published 9th February 2015:

Jaws 3 was two steps too far. Rocky V was an insult. The boy band 5ive reuniting with four members, and in my opinion leaving the best one out, was quite frankly ludicrous. Looking at the Friends cast and giving Joey his own sitcom was an embarrassment. Yes, that’s right, when it comes to the entertainment industry some truly terrible decisions have been made. Though by no means catastrophic, Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spin-off with bent lawyer Saul Goodman at its heart, currently leaves me on the fence after a first episode that feels a little too contrived and forced for my liking.

One could argue that the television drama audience is one of the toughest to please these days. Those who consume are generally as intelligent as they are unforgiving when it comes to the programmes they watch. As the sheer volume of quality output from all over the world becomes more and more accessible via a number of platforms, members of a wide and impatient audience are likely to switch off and divert their attention elsewhere if they’re not hooked after watching a pilot episode. Of course, hype can give even the weakest series opener a shot in the arm and though I’ve seen a lot worse, I’d be inclined to argue that without the luxury of Breaking Bad’s reputation this show would never have been made. In isolation the premise seems weak and Saul isn’t that likeable.

Am I being too harsh? Possibly, yes. Perhaps my pre-conceived view of prequels is getting in the way here. Having watched the epic Breaking Bad I know all about Saul, I liked him as some comic relief and his being there was convenient to that plot at times, but knowing what’s coming from viewing his future life in his former world as Walter White’s crook of a lawyer I can’t help but wonder how many surprises there can really be after this pilot.

I mean, who the fuck uses comic sans? Hate this kid.

I mean, who the fuck uses comic sans? Hate this kid.

So, what happens? And don’t worry, there will be no spoliers, other than the fact that he doesn’t die in this episode, but then you already know that. Well, after a beautifully shot opening that shows Saul’s post Breaking Bad life, depicted in black and white and showing a safe but regretfully monotonous existence, the story really kicks in when we go back to the days where Walter White doesn’t have lung cancer, Skyler is still a moody bitch, their son is still annoying every fucker he’s faced with (and dreaming up his new name – Flynn) and a guilt free Jesse Pinkman is snorting cocaine off of a stripper’s thigh in some seedy establishment. Sorry to disappoint, none of those characters are in this pilot episode and the story doesn’t really kick in either.

Saul is defending those who don’t deserve defence from the start and whilst there’s a nice comic moment in his opening court scene, it’s all a bit drawn out and a little bit crass. I mean, who in their right mind would write about necrophilia? This introduces us to the fact that Saul is struggling to get by as a public defendant and the creator’s attempt to build the audience’s sympathy towards him by showing how he’s a desperate man in a bad place in his life. We see him struggling for work and credibility, then him being singled out by scammers before battling the big money suits who are seemingly taking advantage of his unwell relative. It’s not clear if that said relative is his father or his brother, but he is looking out for the family member known as Chuck whose illness isn’t revealed. I hope it’s not terminal lung cancer that forces him to cook and sell Crystal Meth. Although it all feels clichéd and ‘done before,’ it may work for some viewers as it’s clear that Saul isn’t as big a shit with no moral compass as he seems in Breaking Bad. That said, it’s not entirely convincing. 

There’s a neat tie in where the pair of scamps who try to scam him early on then become his partners in crime to scam others and when they team up and it goes wrong it sets up a semi intriguing cliff-hanger, though, it does lack impact as the danger of their situation isn’t as immediate as you’d think if you hadn’t watched Breaking Bad. That said, there’s a clever and ironic twist set up by this in that his scheming to possibly be doing the right thing and support his father/brother leads him into a world where he does anything but the right thing. By the episode’s end we are provided with our first glimpse of how he became the Saul Goodman we see in Breaking Bad.

You can't hide from the critics...There’s also a cameo from Gus’s mate, Mike, which is all a bit random and unbelievable. Whether this is laying a foundation for a later storyline within this series remains to be seen, but if it’s an attempt at being cute or clever or ironic then I didn’t buy it.

So, what’s my overall verdict? Well, just that it’s all a bit average really. I’ve heard there have been positive reviews elsewhere but on behalf of The Fix I can say that our early stance is that it wouldn’t stand up alone without the weighty reputation of its predecessor. Bob Odenkirk puts in a decent performance and it may be a slow burner so I’ll watch episode two, but so far I’m less than convinced. At least they didn’t do a spin-off depicting the broken family life of Skyler and Walt Jr or Flynn or whatever the fuck his name is. Hate that kid. 

If Saul isn’t enough…

Lost In Translation (2003) – Netflix: With aspirations to write screenplays, the first Oscar award I look out for is the Best Original Screenplay and in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation I believe this is one of its best recipients. The film revolves around an aging actor named Bob Harris (Bill Murray – Oscar Nominated) and a recent college graduate named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who develop a rapport after a chance meeting in a Tokyo hotel.

Review in one line: Cute comedy drama that uniquely highlights the significance of human connection and attraction and making it tragically beautiful in its physical insignificance.

Skins – Series One – Channel 4OD: A one line synopsis on Channel 4’s website reads: “The messy lives, loves, delirious highs and inevitable lows of a group of raucous teenage friends…” and series one, first broadcast on E4 in 2007, to me was something fairly revolutionary as up until then the representation of youth on British television was often one-dimensional and extreme – teenage tearaways or sulky bedroom dwellers. Skins Group Yr6_A2Whether or not others felt the same is entirely subjective but in Skins, set in Bristol, it seemed to explore the wider spectrum and create portrayals of young people with all their complexity whilst providing a more accurate and truthful spectacle on what it was like to be a teenager in that period. It was controversial, but its realism was refreshing and though looking back now you’d think its melodramatic (it was) the educational remit meant that boundaries were broken down between young people and adults by creating reference points to facilitate the tackling of serious issues such as drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and sex lives.

Teachers – Series One, Episode One – Channel 4 OD: Nowadays we’re used to seeing Andrew Lincoln putting on a gruff American accent and finding new ways to off zombies in The Walking Dead, but when I was a kid he was a teacher, not mine, but on Channel 4’s comedy drama Teachers.

One day, you'll be pretty nifty at taking down those who come at you, Andy...

One day, you’ll be pretty nifty at taking down those who come at you, Andy…

It was a bit naughty to be watching the binge drinking, sex charged twenty/thirty-somethings with questionable morals who were portrayed to be teaching children of my age; I often wondered if any of my teachers were actually like that. Of course, when I watched episode one recently I not only found it nostalgic, but I loved the soundtrack and found it funny and compelling despite it feeling a little bit dated.

Better Call Saul and Lost In Translation are now streaming on Netflix with Skins and Teachers available on the Channel 4 website under the Box Sets section