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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Better Call Saul shows the US still leads the field in great TV drama

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut and Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman
Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut and Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman

THE big question when Better Call Saul began on Netflix a fortnight ago was whether it could wriggle free from the grip of Breaking Bad and stand on its own two feet.

We were given a comprehensive answer by the end of the first episode, when the man who would become Saul Goodman, bottom-of-the-barrel attorney Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), knocked on the door of a nice suburban house and found himself staring at the business end of a gun held by one of Breaking Bad’s baddest bad guys, psychopathic drug kingpin Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz).

It was immediately, abundantly clear that Better Call Saul is a viable entity in its own right and doesn’t need to lean too heavily on its illustrious predecessor for support.

The appearances by Cruz and the great Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, whose comedic running battle with Jimmy over parking validation developed into a deeper, more serious bond in this week’s third episode, feels less like a gimmicky sop to Breaking Bad fans and more like a vital piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is Saul’s backstory.

Anyone who doubted Vince Gilligan’s wisdom in gambling on a spin-off series featuring a secondary character must be feeling slightly sheepish. Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould have done a tremendous job of fleshing out the anti-hero lead. Watching Jimmy’s gradual evolution into Saul, his moral compass becoming more skewed by the episode, his basic decency being rapidly worn away, is a delight.

The only question that still needs answering is just how great can Better Call Saul become? After three instantly compelling instalments, the sky would seem to be the limit.

We probably didn’t have any right to expect that a spin-off would be this good, this fully-formed from the off (most aren’t). It proves once again that the creative chasm between the television drama coming out of America and what’s being produced in this part of the world remains unbridgeable.

If you believe the hype, the gap was supposed to have closed in recent years with impressive offerings like Happy Valley, Line of Duty, The Missing and Peaky Blinders from the BBC, the first season of Broadchurch from ITV and Channel 4’s ultra-stylish (and, idiotically, cancelled) Utopia. Less high-profile but no less impressive was BBC3’s In the Flesh – also since cancelled.

We even did our bit for drama in this neck of the woods. While I personally felt the fourth and marginally better fifth seasons of Love/Hate offered thin gruel in terms of plot and character development, you can’t fault the production values, performances or sheer visceral impact of the series. (It’s probably best to draw a discreet veil over the clunky and risible Charlie, whose hefty budget added up to €7 million in missed opportunities.)

Yet when compared against the likes of Fargo, True Detective, Homeland, Ripper Street (dropped by the BBC and promptly snapped up by Amazon Prime) and the final season of Boardwalk Empire – all of which aired in 2014 – not to mention the upcoming final episodes of Mad Men, plus the latest seasons of Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, the volume of truly great television drama coming out of the these islands in any given year, compared to the volume of dross produced, is pitiful.

It’s not all about big budgets, either, nor does it have to be. What all the best TV dramas, whether American, Irish or British, have in common are great ideas, great scripts – and I’d include the third season of Love/Hate as an example. It was superbly written.

In the beginning, as the Bible has it, was the word. Get the writing right and everything else flows from that.

A new episode of Better Call Saul is on Netflix every Tuesday

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