I was browsing Rotten Tomatoes the other day and noticed something fascinating. All of the TV shows with new episodes premiering on Sunday night were ranked pretty damn close to 100 percent. The only show lower than 80 percent was Downton Abbey, which, with a 79 percent, is still a monster in terms of both ratings and critical praise. On the other hand, I noticed that many of the new movies out right now have much more dismal scores. Only two movies in the Top 10 at the box office currently score higher than 80 percent.
Now, to be sure, this comparison isn’t quite scientific, and it’s true that we just suffered through Fuck You, It’s January. (“Fuck You, It’s January!” is Red Letter Media‘s name for the worst month of the year for movies. That said, this happened to have been one of the better Januarys in recent memory.) Nevertheless, the disparity in the Rotten Tomatoes scores points us in the direction of a rather obvious trend. Television, and especially hour-long dramatic television, has in many ways surpassed the quality of what’s in theaters.
I’m not the first to coin this, but the following observation grows more true every year: we live in a golden age for television.
Yes, there’s still an awful lot of crap that’s both watched by millions or discarded (cough — Backstrom — cough). It’s difficult to name all of the truly killer shows, comedies and dramas alike: House of Cards, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, True Detective, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Louie, Downton Abbey, Parks & Recreation, Fargo, Veep, Silicon Valley (best comedy on television), Homeland and Black Mirror, along with shows that just recently ended like The Colbert Report and Breaking Bad (quite possibly the best show in a generation).
There are many more that I didn’t list, but Breaking Bad leads us to the point of all this. Better Call Saul, the prequel/sequel to Breaking Bad, aired its first episode this week on AMC and if the rest of its first two seasons are half as great as the first episode (it’s been picked up for a second season already), this one might climb to the top of an already crowded roster of golden age shows.
Created by Breaking Bad‘s masters of motif, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, Saul is the tale of slimy billboard lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), tracking him from his origins as Jimmy McGill, a hack public defender working from an office in the back of a nail salon, to Albuquerque’s premiere personal injury lawyer and, on the side, special counsel to meth dealers. The show’s timeline begins in 2002 and leads us to the events of Breaking Bad six years later, when Saul fatefully takes on Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as a client.
The show appears to be following a similar narrative trajectory as Breaking Bad — similar but not the same. Where Breaking Bad follows a crumpled, dreary, cancer-stricken high school teacher as his zeal and bad decision-making skills slowly transform him into a drug kingpin, Saul will follow a parallel descent into hell. In Breaking Bad, Walter/Heisenberg is diagnosed with cancer and is determined to leave his family with plenty of money to survive, while Jimmy McGill begins his journey after being compelled into desperation by his personal failures and the plight of his eccentric older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) who also appears to suffer from a fatal illness. And both lead characters, Walter and Jimmy, each discover they’re actually really good at being criminals. From there, the narratives and the protagonists are quite different.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.
The second episode, scheduled for Monday night, hasn’t aired as of this writing so I haven’t seen it. But the series premiere, appropriately titled “Uno,” was the best hour of television I’ve seen since episode four of last year’s True Detective, titled “Who Goes There.” Better yet, it easily stands next to some of best episodes of Breaking Bad, in both tone and quality.
We begin with a cold open in black-and-white at a shopping mall Cinnabon in Omaha, where Saul Goodman is the manager, just as he predicted at the end of Breaking Bad before going into hiding. Goodman is at once paranoid, depressed and bored. At home, he pours a drink and watches a videotape of his old Better Call Saul TV commercials.
Evidently, the shoe box containing the videotape and other secret tokens of his past life are clues to forthcoming events in the show. Following the gritty opening credits we finally meet McGill as a public defender, representing three teenage boys who break into a mortuary and desecrate a corpse — on videotape. Naturally they lose their trial and McGill is paid a measly $700 by the county. At the courthouse parking gate, McGill bumps into a familiar face in the form of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) manning the toll booth, of all things. Driving home, McGill hits a skater with his car and learns that the kid and his twin brother are scam artists who do this all the time. McGill quickly calls their bluff.
At a diner, McGill meets with the county treasurer and his wife about representing the treasurer in court after he’s caught embezzling more than a million dollars from the treasury, but the couple ends up seeking the legal services of the mega-firm in the area, Hamlin Hamlin & McGill, which also happens to have employed McGill’s brother Chuck as a partner. At the mega-firm, McGill accuses the partners of trying to cheat Chuck out of his share of the business. Chuck is living in a dark, ramshackled electromagnetism-free house, paranoid about the environmental causes of his illness and insisting that he’ll recover and return to work.
Here McGill finally decides that he needs to take desperate measures to support his brother and get his own firm off the ground, so he decides to track down the skater twins and, together, they orchestrate a plot to ensnare an unsuspecting soccer-mom type who will accidentally hit one of the skaters. But the plan goes horribly awry when it turns out to be a hit and run — and the soccer-mom isn’t even driving the car. Instead, it’s the mom’s Hispanic maid. That leads the twins and McGill to the mind-blowing surprise of the episode, which I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, it’s a big deal.
From the deliberately low-tech herk-jerky opening credits on through to the shocker ending, there wasn’t a single bad note throughout, nor did I expect there to be one. Admittedly, I was unsure about it going in. How often has a spin-off series matched or surpassed the original? Even the most successful TV spin-off, Frasier, never quite matched the greatness of Cheers. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit might be the only show to do it. On top of the precedent, could Odenkirk carry the show with the same weight as Cranston? Would it fail to live up to the colossal reputation of its predecessor, against which it will inevitably be judged? Can the story of an ethically-questionable lawyer be as compelling as a teacher-turned-meth-dealer? While it’s true that Jimmy/Saul isn’t a carbon copy of Walter/Heisenberg and Odenkirk isn’t Cranston, but dammit if this show isn’t giving Breaking Bad a serious run for its money.
Not only was Odenkirk unsurprisingly exceptional, seamlessly switching gears between huckster, bedraggled sad clown and supportive brother, but Michael McKean clearly hit upon the supporting role of his career as Chuck, whose gentle optimism and faith in humanity grounds the show in a place of genuine earnestness. By the way, I never noticed before but Odenkirk and McKean look like actual brothers. Sadly, if Chuck’s storyline goes where it appears to be going, we might not get McKean for the duration, but then again, Walter White escaped terminal lung cancer so anything’s possible.
I shouldn’t overlook two of the key returning “characters” from Breaking Bad: the city of Albuquerque, which is both mundane and just otherworldly enough to add texture. And, of course, the second character: impeccable music. Focused more on scoring this time around, the music supervision is equally as exceptional as Breaking Bad, thanks in part to supervisor Thomas Golubic. In particular, the choice of song for the black-and-white cold open, a scratchy old 1920s pop standard, is a classic Vince Gilligan mixture of both whimsy and creepy dread, establishing the tone for the entire series.
Better Call Saul not only enjoys a 100 percent score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but it also achieved the highest ratings of any premiere in cable television history. And if it continues at this clip, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t, the golden age of television has at least another handful of seasons to go.
Bring on episode two.
UPDATE: Following the second episode, it’s clear that Chuck’s illness is purely psychological.