A professor of mine once said, “Take the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey,’ throw in Shakespeare, add maybe a little Chaucer and everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING else, has been derivative.”
While a bit hyperbolic his point was made: in drama there’s only so many new ideas. How you retell those same old stories is ultimately what matters most.
Those old stories have been told anew to perfection over the past few decades. We’ve witnessed a vertex of storytelling which started with “The Sopranos” in 1999 and ended just this week with “Better Call Saul.”
“Better Call Saul” is brilliant, but where does it stand all-time?
The Five Best Television Shows of All-Time (*Major Spoilers Ahead*)
Maybe the best way to evaluate a show is to begin with its ending and then work our way back.
The AMC drama ends with Don Draper coming up with the single greatest ad campaign of all time.
In the last season Jon Hamm’s character had hit a rough patch in his career (and in his second marriage), but the show ends with him going out on top as arguably the greatest advertising talent ever to have graced Madison Avenue.
The show’s primary theme is about talent, and the endless forgiveness talent can buy. The United States turns on a simple principle: those who make bank set the rules (and can break the rules). Don broke them all because he dedicated his life to a simple one: the best idea wins.
And he had the best idea.
Better Call Saul
Speaking of talent… Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill, Gene Takavic, Mr. Cumpston, Victor St. Claire, Pastor Hansford, Special Agent Jeffrey Steele) is a major talent but at what exactly?
Is he a brilliant lawyer because he’s a brilliant con man? The show ends with Saul in jail and no hope of parole, and yet his soul was saved. If the primary theme of this show was trust, in the end Jimmy put love above money and proved himself trustworthy.
I got into an argument with Denver talk show host Mike Rosen about the ending of “The Americans.”
Rosen wanted the show’s main couple (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) to pay, to be put in jail like Saul, or worse, killed in a shootout for the crimes of espionage sabotage and murder.
Their punishment was far worse.
The show wraps with KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings looking out over Moscow at night having narrowly escaped from the United States.
What makes it brilliant is that these were dedicated spies who lived the majority of their lives in the U.S. in service to the Soviet Union only to come back right when the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse.
They sacrificed their lives to an empire that is dying and they will see it end.
In addition, they lost their two teenage children in the process, as both remained in the U.S. The Jennings will be forever be known as “The Americans” now in this new Russia which is a fate worse than death or imprisonment.
The HBO series’ ending proved ambiguous.
Does Tony Soprano live or die? We don’t know. We do know that he will forever be in danger of the law and enemies out to get him.
The ending was controversial at the time but in retrospect it’s genius. It leaves the story almost in the exact same place that it began.
What was learned? What was gained? What was lost? It’s Zen. It’s existential. It’s frustrating. Like life.
This show was always about the fluid nature of power: how quickly one can rise and then fall. We rooted for Tony even as we were disgusted by him and, in the end, did you wish that finally he gets his comeuppance or were you rooting for one more narrow escape?
Here the ending is unambiguous… everyone, except maybe Aaron Paul’s Jesse, is dead or soon to be (Saul) in jail.
The “good” guy won, kind of, as Bryan Cranston’s Walt financially protected his family and killed the Nazis but fueled plenty of carnage in the process.
“Better Call Saul” will be remembered, eventually, as the better show, but “Breaking Bad” will always have more jaw dropping OMG and LOL moments than “Saul.”
How important are endings? How does “Hamlet” end? Or “The Iliad?” What about “Macbeth?”
Maybe the endings aren’t as important as how the stories made us feel, the challenges they presented, the relationships and faulty decision making they molded?
I do know that these are the five best television shows ever produced and maybe someday a professor will say, “Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Americans, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad… everything else has been derivative.”