Have We Lost Patience for Prestige TV?

Better Call Saul is dazzling, and frustrating.

a black and white photo of Bob Odenkirk's face inside an hourglass filling with sand set against a red background
Paul Spella

People who respect the integrity of television as an art form tend to be horrified by the Netflix feature that lets viewers speed up what they’re watching. Yet I recently found myself unable to resist the “1.5x” button as I caught up with one of the most acclaimed shows on TV. AMC’s Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spin-off that debuted to record cable viewership in 2015 and will begin airing its sixth and final season this spring, can be magnificent. It can also be tedious. Frequent-depictions-of-tooth-brushing tedious. Multiseason-subplot-about-retirement-home-billing tedious. Slow-and-repetitive-commentary-on-the-human-condition tedious. I-stopped-watching-after-three-years tedious.

Mundanity and profundity—these were key to the 21st-century boom in what critics call “prestige TV,” during which the onetime “vast wasteland” (as Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton N. Minow called it in 1961) began earning regular comparisons to great cinema and literature. Depicting a chemistry teacher, Walter White, who manufactures meth to support his family after receiving a cancer diagnosis, Breaking Bad, which aired from 2008 to 2013,was a defining work of that renaissance. So were The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones, each of which injected a formula-ridden genre—the mob drama, the period piece, the fantasy epic—with realism, interiority, silence, and intimacy (as well as brooding antiheroes, most of them men). Audiences still relished crescendos of bloodshed or melodrama, but they also seemed to appreciate the reprieve from fast-paced plotting, relentless action, even reliable comedy—the familiar gambits for keeping eyes glued to the screen. Millions were tuning in to works that could be as contemplative as a Sofia Coppola movie or as fastidious as a John McPhee book. In other words, the future of TV seemed to promise that the medium would allow itself to get, from time to time, a little slow.

Or even very slow, Better Call Saul suggested. Two years after Breaking Bad ’s five-season run ended, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, and one of its writers, Peter Gould, launched their new series with a lengthy black-and-white sequence showing a man working at a Cinnabon. That man, fans recognized, was a meeker and wearier incarnation of Saul Goodman, Walter White’s sleazy lawyer, played by the comedian Bob Odenkirk. On Breaking Bad, Saul had been a world-wise jester, all quips and garish suits. But Better Call Saul, it quickly became clear, would not play up the comedy inherent in a billboard-advertised defender of drug dealers and drunk drivers. Nor would it be a reimagined courts-and-cops procedural. It would instead focus on the years before Breaking Bad and on the man who grew into the Saul Goodman persona: Jimmy McGill, a screwup and small-time con artist who just wanted to have a legitimate legal career.

The fact that viewers knew how the story would turn out—eventually, the schlump becomes a monster—removed any expectation of great suspense. In its absence, Gilligan and Gould could push their bold cinematic vision beyond the realm of what television had offered before. They had begun expressing that vision on Breaking Bad. Amid grinding tension and flares of violence, the series had fundamentally been a morality play that captured life’s ordinary texture in arresting ways. Skewed camera angles rendered brown-orange strip malls and tract-home cul-de-sacs as fascinating, tessellated puzzles. Careful cause-and-effect logic ruled both overarching plots and dreamy montages about cooking drugs. One of the show’s most memorable episodes spent nearly an hour following Walter White as he attempted to swat a fly.

Saul, Julia Turner proclaimed in a 2016 Slate rave, aimed “higher than its progenitor by lowering the stakes,” while adding “more beauty, subtlety, and moral sophistication.” The spin-off’s first two episodes did briefly enter thriller territory when Jimmy had to negotiate for his life with a crazed drug dealer he’d accidentally offended. But rather than steadily escalate the hijinks, Saul dwelled on legal minutiae (Jimmy manipulates documents to help his girlfriend, the buttoned-up lawyer Kim Wexler, land a regional bank as a client), a psychological cold war (between Jimmy and his snooty corporate-attorney brother, Chuck), and light skulduggery (often facilitated by Mike Ehrmantraut, a charcoal-voiced parking attendant whom Breaking Bad viewers knew as a scarily competent hit man). Bursts of charm, pathos, and action were sprinkled throughout like M&M’s in a bag of trail mix. But the show mostly aspired to the stillness of an Edward Hopper painting as it scanned for melancholy beauty in everyday America. Gilligan told me in a 2017 interview that he wanted to make “room for slower-paced stories,” which he saw “as an antidote to everything else.”

I found the early seasons intriguing in part because the show seemed to be commenting on the very nature of boredom. Breaking Bad ’s final episode had featured Walter confessing that he hadn’t become a meth kingpin for money; he’d sought out danger in order to feel “alive.” In Saul, Jimmy strained to adhere to the straight-and-narrow—public-defender work, estate law—but couldn’t resist the rush of the occasional bribery or faked accident. Viewers oscillated between rooting for him to find happiness in drudgery and rooting for more pulse-quickening schemes. Yet even when Jimmy broke the rules, lovingly filmed vignettes about process—the painstaking toil of document forgery, the construction of a device to disguise his voice on the phone—hammered home the inescapability of logistics and hard work.

By Season 4, the actual experience of watching the show had come to feel like a chore I no longer needed to perform. The descent into Sauldom was inching along, and lengthy scenes were devoted to Jimmy (his law license temporarily suspended) working at a cellphone store with no customers to serve. After multiple seasons inspired by the rhythms of regular life, Gould and Gilligan had made their position clear: Jimmy might cut corners for a head rush, but this show simply wouldn’t. I did not stop appreciating that project so much as forget to keep tuning in to it. The broader television ecosystem was supplying plenty of high-minded distraction, and in a variety of more vibrant flavors.

Saul’s debut year turned out to mark the moment when the so-called Golden Age of Television, with its hour-long weekly minimovies, tipped into “peak TV,” as on-demand streaming services supplied a glut of content. Much of that content has been worthy of the “prestige” label, but not because it builds on Mad Men’s and Breaking Bad ’s quietest moments by solemnly meditating on ordinary reality. Instead, the best of recent TV has often spiced up real-world settings with wild concepts (Russian Doll, which brought a psychedelic twist to an existential crisis), powerful topicality (Succession, a dramedy about the rich and pathetic), and zingy comedy (Fleabag, a character study of a woman who suspects, like Jimmy, that she is a loser). The aura of significance that surrounded Walter White’s saga came from years of careful, unhurried attention to a supposed everyman—a paradigm that Saul doubled down on. Meanwhile, miniseries and varied episode lengths began to show a fresher way forward, and more diverse casting broadened and challenged the everyman conceit.

Still, in preparation for Saul ’s final season, I vowed to catch up—curious less about what had happened to the characters than about the state of my attention span. Would I recover the pleasure of patient viewing? How nostalgic or antsy would I feel about the now half-decade-old goal of making “room for slower-paced stories”? When I was confronted again with the dreary cellphone store, I felt a wave of exhaustion. I powered through it, though, and discovered that I’d bailed just when Saul started to recalibrate. Toward the end of the fourth season, that defining sensation of TV enjoyment—the binge impulse—finally kicked in, and I began hitting “Next Episode” out of desire rather than obligation.

At long last, Better Call Saul had ratcheted up the pace, the suspense, the stakes! As Season 4 ended, Jimmy adopted the name—and criminal-friendly branding—of Saul Goodman. Gun battles, life-endangering treachery, and duffel bags of cash—the pulp grist that had always been on the show’s periphery—were now central. Gilligan and Gould still indulged in their cinematic reveries (a leisurely sequence zoomed in on ants swarming an ice-cream cone, to take one example), but the series was no longer fetishizing the grind of dealing with one small crisis after another between moments of serenity—which is to say, it was no longer focused on the familiar daily feeling of being alive. It was instead imagining how it feels to consciously make the leap into another universe, one of constant danger and excitement.

Would this jolt of adrenaline have been just a cheap high had Saul not delayed it for so long? I’m not yet ready to forgive the show’s dullest detours. But the excellence of Season 5 did benefit from years’ worth of slowly accreted details coming together. Certainly, the gradual lead-up to Jimmy’s fall had set the conditions for an inner storm—greed and exhilaration mingling with guilt and fear—that roiled throughout the season. After one particularly traumatic ordeal for the characters, Mike gives a spiel about life’s road being determined by small, irreversible choices. The oh shit wince that Jimmy gives in response is all too believable: Viewers knew, deep in their cortex, that he had long failed to reckon with the larger course he’d been charting from one petty scrape to the next.

Saul ’s story was always fated to get wild toward the end, and indeed, the creators of the final season have “turned the volume up on all of it,” Rhea Seehorn, the actor who plays Kim, recently told The New York Times Magazine. “Whatever direction someone was already going in, they made it more extreme.” That amplification sounds tantalizing, even if it may refute some of the ideals the series once seemed to stand for. Very few of the streaming era’s breakout shows have shared Saul ’s earlier, low-level languor—or they have done so only within the helpful confines of the miniseries format, or with the benefit of some sort of fantastical hook (see HBO’s postapocalyptic tone poem, Station Eleven). Perhaps not coincidentally, nothing commands—nothing really can command—the same combination of acclaim and viewership that the Golden Age standouts did. What Saul does now share with its contemporaries and predecessors—what makes it, at last, a great show—is an energetic embrace of TV’s promise: the room to experiment with the medium’s episodic format, to play with pace and create immersive, sustained, addictive stories. Future viewers of this dazzling and frustrating series shouldn’t think twice about speeding up when they feel the urge.

This article appears in the May 2022 print edition with the headline “Better Call Saul Dared to Bore Us.