Review: Better Call Saul - The Breaking Bad spin off sure to be a ratings smash
Ed Power reviews Better Call Saul, the series devised by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, which makes shady lawyer Saul Goodman the central character.
It is a good time for bad men. Love/Hate gangster-in-chief Nidge is an icon of Irish television (there was a genuine outcry at his apparent gunning down last year). Breaking Bad's Walter White has become a symbol for what happens when an every-dude is pushed too far and lashes out at the world. Even RTE's recent Haughey biopic Charlie seemed to slyly celebrate the former Taoiseach's less commendable qualities: as brought to swashbuckling life by Aidan Gillen, this Haughey was a glamorous rascal – a villain for sure, but endlessly charismatic with it.
The cult of the anti-hero is reinforced today with the arrival to Irish television (via subscription streaming service Netflix) of Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul. The 'hero', if that is the word (which it isn't), is Saul Goodman, Walter White's exceedingly disreputable lawyer – a person you would not trust to sell you a bag of crisps let alone represent you in court.
What is the appeal of these terrible men? (Female anti-heroes, for reasons that could probably fill an entire thesis, remain rare). It isn't so long ago that television demanded its protagonists be paragons of virtue. When Sopranos creator David Chase suggested the ogreish Tony Soprano brutally dispatch a rival in the first season executives at the HBO network blanched. Was it appropriate for the central character to behave so thuggishsly? Nowadays, it would probably be mandatory.
One reason for the emergence of the charismatic ne'er do well as TV trope is the plain fact that villains are far more interesting than good guys. With a clean consciousness and a pure soul comes a lack of dramatic depth. Decent people are, by definition, well balanced and not given to shocking behavior. They are unlikely to spontaneously kick an underling to death (The Sopranos), invite someone over for dinner and then attempt to incorporate their guest in the menu (Hannibal) or sleep with every woman that crosses their path (Mad Men's Don Draper). They are, in other words, dishwater dreary.
The success of Charlie speaks to the truth of this. By screen-writer Colin Teevan's telling Haughey was a bottomless pit of venality. He maintained a mistress, bullied rivals, tolerated whatever corruption was required to keep his hands on the levers of power. All of which conspired to make for irresistible TV. Can you, in contrast, imagine the life story of Haughey's political nemesis, saintly Garret FitzGerald, brought to the screen? You can feel yourself nodding off just thinking about it.
“It’s just dime-store psychology, but I think we’re fascinated by gangsters because they’re unafraid,” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan once confessed in an interview. "I live my life in a very neurotic and worried fashion, so the thing that resonates the most with me is when Walter White tells his brother in law, ‘You know, since my cancer diagnosis I sleep like a baby.’ What would it be like to be free of fear?”
It is also possible that we catch reflections of ourselves in these monsters. Tony Soprano was a yob and a boor – still, his attempts to balance professional ruthlessness with his vision of himself as an upstanding family man will speak to many. Can you be pitiless in the office and a nice guy at home? We wonder – just as Tony Soprano did.
Don Draper's boozy attempts to negotiate the mine-field of modern manhood had a similarly universal chime. As with Draper, we may sometimes struggle to reconcile our responsibilities as husband and father with what may feel like a natural inclination towards stoicism and emotional compartmentalization. Opening up can be hard – though the effort is perhaps rendered easier knowing dashing Don has wrestled these demons too.
And let's just say it: bad guys are blast to be around. It was delight to welcome avenging serial killer Dexter (Michael C Hall) into our living rooms each week. Would Game of Thrones be nearly as entertaining minus its parade of exquisite nasties? You wouldn't want to live next door to an actual Nidge (imagine calling over to complain about the all-night parties). As a small-screen protagonist, however, he was a delight – compulsive, unpredictable, with a streak of self-destruction that caught up with him in the end.
Therein lies our collective guilty secret. Heroes are a dud. Nobody wants to see the good guy with perfect teeth get the girl. We would much rather watch deeply troubled individuals pushed to the brink of sanity. Such are the forbidden pleasures that fuel the best contemporary television – and which will doubtless ensure Better Call Saul becomes a ratings smash.
Better Call Saul can be seen on Netflix.