With apologies to Friday Night Lights (Texas forever), Breaking Bad is the best show in the history of television. The latter show, which gave audiences 62 tense, heart-pounding episodes between 2008 and 2013, literally had everything to help it rise to the cream of peak television’s crop.
Bad served up one of the finest casts in TV history, not only in stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, but in the depth and detail of its supporting players. It featured arguably the most meticulous writing staff in the annals of television history (seriously, not one episode wasted a moment). To top it off, telling the tale of a cancer-stricken high-school science teacher who begins cooking meth to make ends meet certainly differentiated Bad from peak-era contemporaries like Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos.
And yet Breaking Bad isn't even the best show in its own (barely) fictional domain.
Midway through its third season, Better Call Saul – a spinoff/prequel to the earlier series — has not only managed to outpace Bad in terms of storytelling and character development, but somehow begun to stand alone as its own show. In short, even if you never watched an episode of Bad, it’s quite likely you’d be immersed in Saul nonetheless.
Saul tells the origin tale of Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad's criminal lawyer/”criminal” lawyer who helped Walter White and Jesse Pinkman navigate the criminal underworld while becoming certified drug lords. When the show begins, Saul Goodman is not Saul Goodman at all, but rather Jimmy McGill, a small-time con man who aims to go straight as a legit attorney. However, we know from both the end of Bad and the opening moments of Saul – which reveal McGill to be in hiding and managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska – that he neither ditches his criminal ways nor fulfills his mission to become a big-shot, straitlaced attorney like his older brother Chuck.
This is where Saul has the edge on Bad. Whereas much of the latter's allure lay in tension, big reveals and cries of “how will it end?!?” Saul doesn’t have such luxuries. For the most part, we know how it ends (spoiler alert: not well). Rather, Saul thrives in piecing together how exactly Jimmy McGill came to be Saul Goodman, not his ultimate fate.
I’ll be honest: When AMC announced plans for a Breaking Bad spinoff based on Saul Goodman, I was skeptical. Bob Odenkirk did yeoman’s work as comic relief on Bad, but his Saul Goodman character was just that – a comic-relief bit player who served to lighten up a show that, quite frankly, was capable of inducing panic attacks.
Simply put, this was not a character around which a show could be built. And even if Saul delivered the goods in its first season, would audiences really invest in Jimmy McGill? Or would they simply invest enough time in the show to witness his transformation into Saul Goodman, bringing the whole Breaking Bad circle of life to a close?
But this is why you don’t underestimate Vince Gilligan, creator of both Bad and Saul, and basically the LeBron James of television showrunners. Not only did Gilligan and Saul co-creator Peter Gould make us invest in McGill, we are currently halfway through Season 3 and McGill has yet to morph into Saul. Better yet, audiences aren’t exactly pining for him to do so; the evolution of Jimmy McGill is fascinating enough.
Not that Gilligan and Gould deserve all the credit. Their cast – particularly Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks as the put-upon Mike Ehrmantraut, and Michael McKean as rival/older brother Chuck – have so fleshed out their characters that Saul now stands alone as its own feat of television achievement. In particular, Rhea Seehorn has been an outright revelation as Kim Wexler, Jimmy’s business partner, confidante and love interest.
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Of course, Saul can’t run from its predecessor forever, and the lines are already beginning to blur. This season witnessed the addition of the great Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, whose chain of Los Pollos Hermanos restaurants serves as a front for one of the biggest meth rings in the Southwest. As anyone who binge-watched Bad can attest – and it’s a safe bet that most Saul viewers were Bad fans – we know how it ends for Fring as well (non-spoiler – it takes place during one of the best, most tense episodes in television history), but that doesn’t make his story arc any less engaging.
By the time Saul runs its course and Jimmy McGill too breaks bad, will we witness appearances/story lines from the likes of Bad stalwarts like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman? Rumors have persisted, and former Bad stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul seem game to revisit Albuquerque.
Those gentlemen are certainly welcome. Not only are both fine actors, but as we know, each of their characters inevitably plays key roles in the lives of Saul Goodman, Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut and others. However, should those rumors simply stay as such, Saul won’t suffer.
The show is Dave Grohl unexpectedly becoming a bigger rock star post-Nirvana. It’s LeBron going back to Cleveland and bringing a championship with him. It’s both unexpected and unprecedented. Better Call Saul has somehow taken perfection and made it better.