Normally I will not watch TV shows or read books about lawyers. I hated L.A. Law, for example, and the few John Grisham books that I tried. The problem for me is that I just can’t get past the implausibility of most of the plot lines and that unrealistic (in my experience, at least) depictions of lawyers and legal scenarios. My inner groaning at the dubious fictional reality always made it impossible for me to enjoy the book or the show.
Then Kish and I started watching Better Call Saul, and I finally got beyond my fictional lawyer mental block — and in the process found a really great TV show.
Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad. When we first meet Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, he’s a classic lawyer caricature — crooked, conniving, duplicitous, and seemingly designed purely to provide some comic relief. I groaned when Saul Goodman was introduced, because he was everything I disliked in a fictional lawyer character. But Breaking Bad was such an excellent show that I watched despite my initial dislike of Saul Goodman — and as the show progressed the character grew on me a little, and I found that I could accept Saul.
Still, when Breaking Bad ended and I heard that a new prequel was being filmed that would focus on the Saul Goodman character, I was skeptical that I would like it. It only took a few episodes for me to get hooked on Better Call Saul, and only a few episodes more for me to get to the point where I think you can make a reasonable argument that Better Call Saul is, arguably, a more groundbreaking show than Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul takes us back to when Saul was known by his given name, Jimmy McGill. We meet a bunch of new characters — including Jimmy’s lawyer brother, Chuck, and Jimmy’s love interest and stalwart, dependable friend, Kim — as we go back to several years before Breaking Bad begins. Jimmy’s got a sketchy history back in Illinois, but after a close brush with the law he’s come out to Albuquerque, where Chuck is a prominent lawyers, he’s met Kim, and he’s tried to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Jimmy McGill has some endearing qualities — he’s a natural charmer, and loyal, and he goes to great lengths to help his brother, Chuck, deal with a very odd condition, for example — and he’s even gone to a correspondence law school in secret and passed the New Mexico bar. From time to time, at least, it’s not hard to see why go-getter Kim finds Jimmy attractive.
But life and the fates seem to conspire against him, and — here’s the lawyer part — whenever he is confronted with an ethical issue he makes the wrong decision. In fact, Jimmy’s ethical instincts are so unfailingly misguided that law professors could have their students in an ethics class watch the show and follow the rule of thumb that if Jimmy is doing it, it’s violating every ethical rule known to the organized bar. And there’s a tragic element to that, because Jimmy actually would be a pretty darned good lawyer if he could just avoid the ethical snares that trip him up. He’s hardworking, and creative, and has a good eye for legal problems and potential claims — but the ethical issues are his Achilles heel.
Jimmy McGill’s story would be enough to make Better Call Saul an enjoyable show, but what really makes it must-see TV is the whole narrative arc that comes from being a prequel. In short, we know how this narrative must end. In addition to Jimmy/Saul, many other Breaking Bad characters are prominently featured, and it’s both jarring, and unnerving, to know what’s ultimately going to happen to them. But that’s only part of the “prequel” effect. We know that other characters who are new to Better Call Saul don’t have a role in Breaking Bad — and we wonder why not, and what happens to them between now and then. It really puts the viewer on pins and needles, and it’s why you really need to watch all of Breaking Bad before you try Better Call Saul. I think this whole “prequel effect” makes Better Call Saul a truly groundbreaking show.
This is a remarkable, exceptionally well-acted show, featuring Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul, Jonathan Banks reprising his role as Mike from Breaking Bad, and Kish’s and my favorite character, Rhea Seehorn as the hardworking, supportive Kim, a great lawyer with a heart of gold but also a nagging desire to visit the dark side now and then. But all of the actors are good, all of the characters are compelling, key characters from Breaking Bad are starting to show up, and we’ve reached the point in the narrative where things are about ready to spiral downhill and out of control. We’re just holding our breath and waiting to hear the first mention of “Heisenberg.”
Whether you’re a lawyer or not, Better Call Saul is well worth watching.