Friday, April 29, 2016

TV Review: Better Call Saul

I wonder if Better Call Saul is the best TV show no-one else I know seems to be watching. Remember how everyone seemed to catch up with Breaking Bad once it acheived some sort of pop-cultural breakout (I remember more than on SF-focused website claiming it was "Science Fiction" because of y'know, chemistry, and covering it for the hits) but this series, nominally a prequal, seems to have generated far less attention.  In some ways I understand this, as BCS has a less obvious hook, being the story of a small time con-man-cum-lawyer and his search for...whatever it is Jummy McGill is searching for. But it's a truely fantastic show, and if you've any taste for finely written drama, you should be tuning in. 

Better Call Saul's second season opens in much the same way as it's first, with Saul - formerly Jimmy, now working in an Omaha Cinnabon and on the run from the wreckage of his past - moping his way through black-and-white days. It's a strange framing device, ominous and sad, and I'm still wondering if at some point - on day - we'll see someone from his past walk into his future life. But for now, we still need to find out how we get there, and we pick up with Jimmy in the aftermath of the quietly devastating showdown with Chuck at the end of Season 1. He's got a new job (and a new car and apartment) and at first, well it seems he's moving up, being the man that everyone - everyone apart from Chuck - wants him to be. But that's not going to last, is it? 

This is a show that is all about duality. Breaking Bad had it as a theme - the idea of masks you wear (Walter, Gus, Hank, and so on) that can consume you but in BCS that runs through everything. For a start you have your two protagonists, Jimmy, who never shuts up, and Mike, who never speaks, both on their own journeys to the characters they appear as later, and both with a way to go. And then each character becomes torn between two poles, each facing lines they have to cross, or not, to get what they want. Most scenes - nearly all, to be honest - are between two people, often with opposing views, each trying to get around the other. The whole show is an elaborate dance, with everyone swapping partners, scene-to-scene. 

For me, one of the best parts of it is that the stakes are at the same time low, and high. This is nearly always a battle for people's souls - for redemption, for honour, for respect. Mike's story features guns, sure, but little gunplay. I've seem arguments that nothing happens in this show but at the same time everything happens - I know the fates of Jimmy and Mike and I don't want that for them, even though that knowledge colours everything they do.The big winner this season for me was Kim, who got two or three episodes pretty much to herself and by the end felt pretty much like a co-lead. She's also a character whose fate is open and unknown, and the character I've probably come to care about the most. Jimmy is damned, perhaps, Kim may yet escape. 

What you have in Better Call Saul is a show that as quickly become its own thing, separate from the show it's span off from. The links remain - the strong hint of a returning character for it's third season causing some excitement in our house - but its the journey of it's characters - even Chuck, a Paladin of Jerkiness wielding Truth as a weapon, - that holds me, even if I know the destination for many of them. For the second year in a row, small moments for small stakes carry enormous weight, and Better Call Saul proves you don't need rapid-fire twists or sprawling casts to be one of the best shows on TV at the moment.