Sunday 17 December 2017

Saul is breaking bad, which is good for lovers of drama

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul
Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul

John Boland

"I'm a lawyer, not a criminal!" Jimmy McGill protested when asked to assist in stealing $1.5 million, but the viewer knew otherwise.

Already in Better Call Saul (Netflix), Jimmy had almost got himself murdered after asking two young skateboarders to scam a woman driver out of money by staging a road accident.

And already it was clear that Jimmy was something of a screw-up - not alone did he sleep and work out of a tiny storeroom at the back of a Korean nail parlour (with his pillow kept in the drawer of a filing cabinet), but his skateboarding buddies had foolishly picked a car driven by the granny of a fearsome criminal called Tuco.

We had met Tuco before, but then we'd also met Jimmy - both of them in Breaking Bad, where Jimmy was known as Saul Goodman and had found gainful if dangerous employment as legal adviser to drug kingpin Walter White. That, though, was six years later, whereas in Better Call Saul, Jimmy is still operating under his real name while scrabbling for work in New Mexico with deadbeats and low-lifes for clients.

It was daring of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, when devising a spin-off to his brilliant original, to opt for a prequel - after all, the viewer knows that as Jimmy/Saul will eventually become Walter's fixer, nothing too dreadful is going to happen to him six years earlier, though a desert stand-off with psychopathic thugs didn't lose any of its terrifying tension through this foreknowledge.

But it was also daring of him to make Saul his main player in this new venture. He was a highly entertaining subsidiary character in Breaking Bad, but surely he was too shifty a figure to command a central role, while Bob Odenkirk lacked the requisite good looks traditionally expected of a leading actor.

However, neither was Bryan Cranston a conventional leading man in Breaking Bad, instead bringing to the role more intriguing attributes, just as James Gandolfini had brought to his playing of that other difficult middle-aged man in The Sopranos. The finest American television drama of the last 15 years has specialised in such figures, and Odenkirk's Jimmy/Saul looks set to be as interesting as any of them.

And viewers clearly still love such characters, with audience figures for this week's opening episodes of Better Call Saul proving massive. I expect this darkly comic series to get even darker as it progresses, though already Vince Gilligan's mordant tone is all over it.

Indeed, it's been a good new year for drama, with the excellent Danish series, The Leagacy, ending on a teasing cliffhanger last week and with the fifth season of the terrific Spiral reaching its conclusion tonight on BBC4. Meanwhile, BBC2's Wolf Hall has been getting better all the time, even though the chattering class's love of upmarket drama obviously isn't shared by everyone - apparently, it's been haemorrhaging viewers across the Irish sea.

Perhaps they prefer such manipulative tosh as BBC1's new series, The Gift, which seems a blatant attempt to cash in on the popular, though not artistic, success of ITV's similarly smarmy Long Lost Families.

The programme's thrust was summed up in the opening plaintive voiceover, which asked "how far you'd go to thank a stranger who'd saved your life or to say sorry to someone you'd wronged".

To this end, the makers located Welsh fusilier Patrick, who'd been whisked to safety by a British army helicopter from a south Armagh roadside after he'd been grievously injured in an IRA mortar attack in the late 1980s. He was finally tracked down rescuer Alex in Los Angeles, where's he now a television producer.

Despite his protest that he didn't need to be thanked for his act of bravery, he was flown to London for a pub reunion with Patrick that was meant to be tear-jerking but came across as stilted.

Not as stilted, though, as the reunion of Hermann and Grace, who'd dumped him 50 years earlier and had spent her life feeling bad about it. Hermann gamely consented to meet her, even though he'd emigrated to America after their brief relationship and had happily brought up a family there. However, this cringe-making programme was intent on hyping up their pointless late-life re-encounter.

Nor did I really get the point of After Care: The Story of Ireland's Care Leavers (RTE1), which focused on four of the vulnerable young people whose care is no longer the State's responsibility, and who have spent the last year trying to fend for themselves.

Yes, it was probably salutary to learn that, having reached the age of 18, almost 500 young people have found themselves in the same situation over the last year, and it was also hard not to feel for the four whose predicament was being detailed here. Yet, like other such earnestly well-meaning RTE probes, there was the sense of hands being piously wrung to no obvious purpose or effect.

Nor do I quite get the point of Mna na gCurach (TG4), a new four-part series that accompanies a number of young women as they engage in the predominantly male practice of currach-racing. Talk about niche broadcasting. What next: a six-part series on underwater basket weaving?

The young women here - whether from Dublin, Kerry, Galway or Belfast - were enthusiastic and personable and I wish them well in their endeavours, but why would I want to watch them over four weeks?

Comedy Central's new US import, Inside Amy Schumer, appears to be pitched as a female counterpart to Louie, but it's not nearly as transgressive or even edgy as that show.

Schumer, who's a 33-year-old New Yorker and a veteran of stand-up shows, follows Louis CK in alternating live stage routines with filmed sketches. But what's meant to be daringly explicit mostly comes across quite laboured, as in the sketch where a guy she fancies declares he has AIDS, asks "Is that a deal-breaker for you?" and is simperingly told: "I think it's kind of cool." Then she reveals she has a gluten allergy, whereupon he leaves in disgust.

Maybe it's the way she tells them.

This sitcom is far from a catastrophe

Catastrophe (Channel 4), which is created, written and performed by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, has so far been running for only four episodes, but already a second series has been commissioned.

That's not surprising because, though the show is not brimming over with obvious laughs, it's so engagingly quirky and its main players are so likeable, that viewers instantly took to the set-up they invented.

Horgan has been doing funny work for years, though mainly in shows that didn't deserve her, while Delaney was an unknown entity to anyone on this side of the Atlantic.

Here, the two gel beautifully - you really do believe in them as a mismatched couple trying to make a go of an unwanted pregnancy. And the subsidiary characters are so good that this rudely off-beat sitcom has turned out to be a weekly pleasure.

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