Better Call Saul: Part One Of A Review

Art's Visual Media Review2

BETTER CALL SAUL:

A Collision Of Two Worlds

When Breaking Bad appeared on television it became a peak moment in the history of the medium.

The world may be fucked up but television has never been better. If you use your remote with discernment, you will find incredible things to watch through your three hundred channel cable box. In its seventy year reign over the American psyche, there has never been more or better television. Nor has the human race been closer to mass tragedy. The importance of television expands as we get quarantined in our homes. TV’s always been important. Now it’s running a close second to Survival itself. I’m not sure we wouldn’t go insane as we wait for the stay-at-home orders to lift. We need TV. Desperately.

The Arts often flourish in times of decadence and turmoil. When a civilization becomes ill, a host of artists arise to attempt its healing. When Breaking Bad ascended to the pinnacle of great art, it created a new space for the production of yet more great TV.

I refer to the spin-off of Breaking Bad, the superb series, Better Call Saul.

We first met Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. He turned up as the criminal defense attorney for Walter White and his confederates. His character was somewhat clownish. I made the unconscious surmise that series creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould did not take Saul Goodman seriously.

I was wrong. When Breaking Bad was seen and done I grieved because there was nothing as great to continue watching. Then Better Call Saul appeared and once again I was taken into the wry, dark, ironic world of Gilligan and Gould.

Better Call Saul has just completed its fifth season and may be ramping up for the sixth. Saul Goodman is the sly pseudonym taken by attorney Jimmy McGill. “It’s all good, man.” Jimmy himself explains the pun of his name. He’s a bit of a wild man, an outsider in his profession. Some would call him a shyster or ambulance chaser. He gives himself to the lost souls of the streets. He represents clients who are too dirty to be touched by more principled attorneys. For “principled” read snobbish. Saul doesn’t mind getting grubby.

The story arc of Better Call Saul is one that exposes the inner workings of two distinct worlds. One is the world of the drug cartel. The other is the world of middle class America. It is Saul Goodman who provides the bridge between these two worlds. In Breaking Bad it was Walter White who played the fulcrum character who bridged those worlds. Walter was a high school chemistry teacher who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, turned to the manufacture of methamphetamine to provide for his family when he’s gone.

Saul is pressured into representing a Cartel lieutenant, a terrifying character named Lalo Salamanca. It is the Salamanca Cartel that is at war with other cartels for control of the drug trade in the Southwest. The series takes place in Albuquerque and the scenery is full of vast desert tracts. Out there, in the desert, dead bodies routinely disappear.

Albuquerque is a pleasant city, but its location makes it a prime route for drugs smuggled through Mexico. It’s home to the drug barons who maintain operations on both sides of the border. Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, is drawn inexorably into the cartel’s workings. In the first few seasons the conflict centers around Jimmy’s relationship with his brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill. Chuck is a famous and powerful corporate lawyer who is afflicted with a bizarre form of OCD. He’s allergic to electricity.

Jimmy takes care of Chuck when his allergies render him completely helpless. Jimmy wants to emulate his big brother. He’s put himself through law school and waits to pass the Bar Exam. Chuck does everything to sabotage Jimmy. From Chuck’s lofty position in the world of the courts there is no place for a clown like Jimmy McGill. Chuck’s brother is an embarrassment. Jimmy is hurt and bewildered by Chuck’s hatred and malice.

Lucky for Jimmy, he forms a relationship with attorney Kim Wexler. It’s Kim who keeps Jimmy grounded. Without her steadying influence he might spin off into some outer limits of legal brinksmanship. It is in fact Jimmy’s “edge” that attracts Kim. Behind her business suit and neatly wrapped pony tail is a wild child who savors the antidote to boredom that Jimmy provides.

Like Jimmy, the relationship itself often flirts with disaster. In spite of Jimmy’s ‘danse macabre’ the couple survives with their love intact. This love, this loyalty and unconditional regard, is the glue of the series. As long as Jimmy and Kim love each other, things will be all right.

Things will work out.

Tune in to Part Two of my review of Better Call Saul on the last Friday in May.


A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good.  His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv


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Homeland: An Over(re)view

 

Homeland: An over-review

            Showtime’s National-Security thriller, “Homeland”, is a Monster.  It’s intense, cerebral, nerve-wracking, absorbing and addictive.  It’s just the kind of stuff we like.  Claire Danes is either a genius or the world’s most egregious over-actor since Adolph Hitler.  Her eyes bug out of her head.  She gives Bipolar Disorder a new public face.  Her gaze darts everywhere in fits of paranoia.  Claire is sensing the facts as they are: everyone is out to get her.  Playing CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, she’s in disgrace.  The agency to which she is devoted, the CIA, is also in disgrace, thanks to flubs, fumbles, the 9/11 disaster and political turf wars. Carrie’s the scapegoat.  Everyone in the Intelligence community knows she’s a nut case.  The thing is, she’s a nut case who is RIGHT.  It takes a crazy person to identify the deeper reality.  It takes a slobbering paranoid to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together in ways that no sane person would dare.  This is a new era, a new paradigm.  The Cold War is over.  Hawkish right-wingers have spent the last decade enhancing the power of the Presidency, ditching congressional oversight and accountability.  There is political and moral turmoil. A real President is never mentioned; there is just “The President” and he is kept out of the picture. How do we handle such issues as torture, assassination, domestic surveillance and murder-by-drone? The gloves are off.  We do the expedient thing.  If we have to kill people to save an intelligence operation, we do the killing.  The operation is all-important. 

            There isn’t much ideology in “Homeland”.  The characters are mostly driven by ambition, greed and ego.  Carrie has given up trusting anyone.  She’s fallen in love with Nick Brody (played by Damian Lewis).  She doesn’t trust Brody, she’s “playing” him, but still she loves him.  She suspects that he’s an agent of Iranian Intelligence, and she’s right. Nick Brody has endured eight years of torture by the Taliban.  Now he’s a secret Jihadist.  He’s been “turned” by his captors.  He prays to Allah in his garage, out of sight of his family.  He’s the Trojan Horse who’s going to wear a suicide vest.  He’s going to blow up the political leaders of the U.S.A. in a single fiendish blast.  He’s been elected as a Congressman on the basis of his heroic persona and is now being touted as the Vice Presidential nominee for the next general election.

            “Allahu Akbar” he mutters reverently, bowing into his garage-floor prayer rug.  His sixteen year old daughter, Dana, catches him in the act.

Oops. 

She doesn’t say or do anything.  She’s confused.  She’s scared.   She wants to love her father, the father who’s been gone since she was eight, who was declared dead before his dramatic recovery from the Taliban. 

What do I know? Mandy Patinkin shrugs.

.

            Shouldn’t everyone be suspicious of Nick Brody?  But..but…he was a Marine, he survived eight years of captivity and didn’t break! He looks damn good in that uniform!  Why shouldn’t he run for Congress?  CIA sub-chief Saul Berenson is plenty suspicious.  He’s played by a wooly faced Mandy Patinkin.  He looks like the rabbi who presided over my Bar Mitzvah.  I want him to embrace me in a bear hug, I want him to smell like cigars as his beard scratches my boyhood cheeks.  He seems to be the only CIA officer who believes in Carrie’s crazed perceptions.  He’s her mentor and protector.  We, the audience, want to believe in his integrity.  When he (apparently) succumbs to external pressure and betrays Carrie, it looks like he’s been lost as the story’s only honest character.   Well, Carrie’s honest to a fault but she’s loop-dee-loo manic when she’s off her medications, which is most of the time.  She’s a dedicated operative, her life and her family are the CIA.  She’s on/again off/again with the CIA because she kept her Bipolar Disease a secret.  Yet she’s so valuable, her results so palpable that she’s allowed to remain a kind of house pet with access to most of the deep secrets.  In time she herself becomes one of the CIA’s secrets.  She doesn’t know that she’s a secret, maybe the most important secret of them all.  Well, I told you, she’s crazy!

            Damian Lewis looks like Steve McQueen.  His pursy little mouth is so McQueen.  I know, it’s irrelevant, but it drives me crazy.  I don’t know if he’s that good an actor.  I just don’t know. The important thing is that he’s good enough.  If he’s confused as Nick Brody, he damn well ought to be confused.  He went to war as a gung-ho Marine and was taken prisoner and thrown into a hole.  He spent five years in the hole and then was let out to be manipulated by arch-terrorist Abu Nazir.  It was Stockholm Syndrome with full maple syrup.  Devil-faced Abu Nazir played Good Cop on Nicholas Brody and converted him to Islam.

            How confusing would it be if you came home to a wife, two kids and a nice suburban house, masquerading as a war hero while plotting to become a Martyr to the cause of global Jihad?  Pretty damned confusing.  Damian Lewis plays confused to the point of impenetrability.  We don’t know who he is.  His aberrations are written off to PTSD.  As Congressman Brody he has access to all kinds of people and places.  How lovely for terror chief Abu Nazir, who employs a full-time suicide vest maker: the little tailor who runs a small shop in Gettysburg with a sideline in explosives.

Nick Brody before cleaning up

            “Homeland” is scary because we live in a scary world.  An all-pervasive war is being fought everywhere, invisibly.  It’s a war of computer hackers, Special Ops raids, spies, spooks, moles, rats, safe houses, cover identities, drone strikes, satellite imagery, surveillance at every traffic light and Seven Eleven.  Nothing is too far fetched in today’s world.  By creating a lead character who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, Showtime has pulled the band-aid off the wound.  Ow!  That hurts!  It’s disturbing to contemplate Carrie Mathison running around, defying orders, blowing covers, making extremely risky decisions while her “handlers” in the communications van chew the ends of their fingers with anger and frustration.  “Carrie, stop!  Get back under cover!”  Carrie doesn’t stop.  She’s off her meds.  Her judgment is impaired.  This is the kind of spook in whom our trust resides, the spook who holds the safety of our nation in her agile but deeply warped mind.  

            I don’t recommend watching “Homeland” before bed time.  We do it anyway.  We dream freaky dreams.  


Friday Night Lights: Bingeworthy TV

By Arthur Rosch

 

 Art's Visual Media Review

 

            FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS isn’t about Texas high school football.

            It’s about Texas high school football.

            I admit to writing this stupid/cutesy opening and I don’t even have a good reason for it. I suppose it expresses my surprise. I expected a sports drama. I anticipated a series about a scrappy low-ranked team overcoming its difficulties and moving on to the semi-finals and then the finals and then…..you know the story.It’s been done to death. Underdog Triumphs Despite Impossible Odds.

            Peter Berg’s masterwork about Americans at their best and their worst is way beyond football scoreboards. The game dramas we’re given, the playoffs and championships, are almost footnotes. Do they win or lose the nationals? Yay! Boohoo! Oh well…the story moves on.

            In case you haven’t heard, Texans have a local football culture like no other. Its passions fill in the great empty spaces of the land. It entertains, it distracts, it involves, it sucks people into its politics, it’s a tornado and it leaves nothing untouched.

            It’s serious. The aristocracy of star players have perks beyond belief. They are scouted by major college teams and the NFL looms in the background for a few talented athletes. The perks have to be within the bounds, so to speak. There’s no buying and selling of games and players (or, at least, there’d better not be). This adherence to the strictures of amateurism doesn’t preclude assigning a virtual harem to the stars, the quarterback, the tight end, the wide receiver and so forth. These guys stride the halls of school like gods.

            FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS isn’t about Texas high school football because it’s really about character, relationships and community.

            The true star of this drama is a relationship. The marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor is the spine of this narrative’s skeleton. It’s the beating heart at the center of the town of Dillon, Texas. Without the marriage of Eric and Tami, there is no story. Actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton play their parts with such natural grace that their marriage should receive an Emmy. It is one of the great marriages in television history.

            Eric is the new Head Coach of the Dillon Panthers. Tammy is the high school counselor. Their marriage is subject to pressures that would crush most commitments. If Eric and Tammy can survive this alchemist’s crucible, they will be peerless. They will be jewels.

            If they can’t, they’ll be another sad divorce that leaves behind a shattered family. Their daughter Julie is at that age just before she starts to rebel and roll her eyes. We need to wait until Season Three for the foot-stomping, eye rolling and the whole alphabet of gestures of teenage contempt for adult restrictions. Meanwhile, she’s a nice cute kid with a training bra.

            Eric and Tammy have tough jobs. If you think coaching high school football is small time stuff, think again. This is Texas. Eric needs all the qualities of a drill sergeant, a general, a shrink, a priest and a politician. He has to raise his voice and deliver a fifteen minute harangue to a team of wall-sized athletes until they are reduced to terrified little lumps of jelly, quivering on the locker room floor. Or he can put his arm around a confused, demoralized quarterback, pull the boy’s head onto his shoulder and choose the right words to unleash a deluge of tears. He must puncture the macho armor of these arrogant teen prima donnas and make them, FORCE them, to live in the real world where they are not God’s gift to women and football. Creating better athletes is secondary to creating better people.

            All across the country, the name of Eric Taylor is being discussed. He’s a young, new coach, he’s just emerging and he’s the man to watch. He may be next year’s High School Coach Of The Year. He’s at the beginning of a career that may some day take him to the Super Bowl.

            Eric is, by nature, a man of few words. At home, he’s a firm but gentle presence who doesn’t make a lot of noise. He’s busy. He’s working, watching playback of games, evaluating his own calls and his players’ moves. He works ALL the time. He lives football. His wife understands this, she has grasped it from the very beginning of their marriage and rather than pout and grow disillusioned, she creates her own life. She uses her own strengths and interests to engage the world. She’s a high school guidance counselor. This makes her the equivalent of a prison warden and The Great White Hunter on an African Safari. She is stimulated by challenge. She is one of those goddess mothers full of lush strength, red-maned, sexy and very tough.

            What makes a marriage between two such powerful people function so well?

            Honesty keeps the marriage strong. Tami and Eric are always honest with one another. Even when they lie, they’re honest about lying. Neither is afraid to admit being wrong about an issue. They support one another with unbreakable consistency. If they have a fight, they cut through the bullshit, find the central issue, and look for compromise. They don’t resort to yelling and name calling.

            There are times when an irresistible opportunity appears before Eric or Tami. The problem is, accepting the opportunity would require changes in the marriage or the family lifestyle.   One of them, Eric or Tami, is going to have to make a sacrifice. Who is willing to see a lifetime dream fade away? Who is wise enough to see that opportunity does NOT come only once in a lifetime?

            The town of Dillon, Texas is neither large nor small. It’s like a town with a hundred thousand people that has been absorbed into the suburban sprawl of Houston or Dallas. It has an identity. Much of that identity is drawn from the supremacy of the Dillon Panthers.

            The power brokers, the mayor, the oil moguls and the owner of the Cadillac dealership are Panther alumni and sit on the board of the Booster’s Association.They know which strings to pull, how to schedule games to the advantage of the team, how to acquire players from other teams who might be Panther-killers if they’re not brought into the fold. They’re the guys who play dirty, behind the curtain. A little pressure, maybe some mild blackmail; it gets the job done and the team is none the wiser.

            It’s amazing how much of the human condition can be collected into a single file cabinet with the same labeled situations. There are aimless kids on drugs, there are abandoned old people, cheating husbands, bankrupt businessmen, pregnant cheerleaders, corrupt officials, natural disasters, infatuated teenagers going suicidal over a romantic setback….all these potholes in the road of life are much the same, no matter where you go.

            The things that can’t be pigeonholed, that can’t be stuck in a file, are the lineaments of character. Which one of these people can overcome the temptation to shirk? Which one can step up and make an effort to change?

            I ask, because I think Friday Night Lights is a narrative about that power in human beings, that ability to see their own trouble and solve the problem, and then move forward. There will be another problem, and another. No matter. By the time Season Three begins, even the people we learned to hate have become different, better. They are tougher, yet softer. They have something that we all wish we had: a supportive community.

            I was amazed, over and over again, at the way the people of Dillon turn to one another. Coach Taylor’s door is always open. If the phone rings at three in the morning, he will answer it. “I’ll be right there,” he says, sliding out of bed and looking for his pants. If some sopping wet weeping teenager having a crisis knocks on someone’s door, there will be a soft place to fall. A motherly hand is extended: “Why come on in, sugar, you look awful, and you’re just SOPPING wet! What can I do for you?”

            In my dreams I live in a place like that. Dillon is special because Southern Hospitality is not only real but it includes everyone and it understands that shame is the enemy of communication. As a community, Dillon expands its definition of humanity and grows like an amoeba to absorb shame so that being ashamed is not shameful. Lying about the cause of the shame, THAT’S shameful, so it’s better to unburden the heart, to come clean and let someone help you, someone with a wiser mind like Eric or Tami Taylor, or a hundred other people. What’s sad is that this town is a television fiction but it gives me hope. If someone can imagine such a place, someone can create it in the real world.

 

A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good.  His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv


Want to be sure not to miss any of “Art’s Visual Media Reviews”? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.