Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Guilty Pleasures

I don’t watch much TV when the NFL is not in season, but every so often my wife and I binge on a series. Last spring, we watched the first four seasons of “Downton Abbey” courtesy of Netflix; and the summer found us “Breaking Bad,” very bad, cramming seventy-plus episodes of that series into a mad four-week period.

“One more?” she asked. “Yeah, but just one more,” I repeatedly answered.

It must be all the snow—three storms in fifteen days—but we’re back at it now, catching up on “Downton,” season five, while getting in on the ground floor with “Better Call Saul.” The “Breaking Bad” spinoff stars Bob Odenkirk (picture) as the sleazy lawyer known in “Bad” as Saul Goodman.

Turns out that wasn’t his name originally, as the new series, a prequel, quickly establishes. Meth king Walter White’s lawyer started out as a decent-enough schmo named Jimmy McGill, just trying to make a buck.

The allure of “Saul,” like that of “Bad,” is seeing how an ordinary man can become a monster. As twisted as the two series may seem to the buttoned-down and strait-laced, they are probably the closest thing TV gives us to morality plays.

Here’s the point: I could have been Walter White—a good father and dedicated teacher for whom a cancer diagnosis was the first push down a slippery slope to hell. “I just wanted to provide for my family,” might have been the motto on the wall of his meth lab.

So too, I suppose, with a law degree, a bad haircut, and a better gift of gab, I could have been Jimmy McGill. The opening episodes show the lawyer trying to build a business while subsisting on $700 fees for defending common criminals and running an office in a closet at the back of a nail salon.

“I’m a lawyer, not a criminal,” he pleads with Tuco, the badman from “Bad” who threatens him in “Saul.” Tuco, of course, doesn’t buy it, but it’s true. Though maybe “lawyer on my quick little way to criminal” is more like it.

Although it’s far more genteel and wouldn’t ruffle my dear mum the way “Bad“ or “Saul” would, I feel guiltier enjoying “Downton Abbey.” That’s because the only unpredictable thing about the BBC series is what five plot twists the writers are going to come up with in the next hour to keep the whole carousel turning.

While the Vince Gilligan stories of meth king and lawyer are linear—guided one-way bus tours to damnation—“Downton” is a soap opera that just turns and turns and turns. I am only on episode 4 of season 5, thanks to a season pass, so I’ll bet everyone who’s up to date with “Downton” can answer most of these questions.

What is Thomas Barrow’s sickness? Or addiction?
Will Edith tell anyone that Marigold is her child?
Will Lady Mary succeed in throwing off Tony Gillingham?
Will Isobel accept the proposal of Lord Whats-His-Name?
Will Mrs. Patmore’s nephew Archie be honored on the war memorial?
Is there a future for Tom and Miss B from the village?
Will Maggie Smith’s dowager meet her Russian lover again?
Will Bates be arrested again? Jailed? Hanged?
Will Cora kiss the smarmy art dealer Bricker?
Will Molesley and Baxter get it on?

I’m leaving out five or six subplots. The point is, by the end of season 5, I expect all of these questions to be answered. I also expect a whole new series of completely trivial questions to bring me back for season 6.

Which makes “Bad” and “Saul” the remarkable shows they are. They ask only one question: How do we start out trying to be good and end up breaking so bad?

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