Better Call Saul is Slow TV.
The term "Slow TV" means a couple of different things. There's the documentary genre that presents hypnotic unedited footage of slow-paced events like a train ride from Oslo to Bergen, and there's the critical term to describe shows with "unrushed, atmospheric narratives," as the New York Times' Frank Bruni puts it.
The latter was coined in 2010 by The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman to describe shows like In Treatment that contained long, quiet periods with little to no plot momentum. The definitive Slow TV show was Sundance's Rectify, a riveting show in which almost nothing ever happened.
Rectify ended late last year, leaving a vacancy for the title of Slowest Show on TV. Into that opening steps (carefully, deliberately) AMC's Better Call Saul, which kicks off its third season on Monday, April 10.
Better Call Saul has been called slow since it started. For the most part, the description is not a criticism, just an observation. The Breaking Bad spin-off from showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould has always been a beautifully written, masterfully acted and exquisitely directed show. It just takes its sweet time getting to its big moments — and even when it gets to those moments, they're still pretty quiet compared to, say, Game of Thrones.
At its heart, the show is a character study of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), two men who want to do the right thing but whose pasts and instincts won't let them. Eventually, we're going to find out how they became the truly bad guys they were on Breaking Bad, but that didn't happen overnight, and Better Call Saul is taking us, methodically, through every step of that journey.
In December, Gould told TVGuide.com that he thought Season 3 would be faster-paced, but admitted that he wasn't the right person to ask.
"I don't know if I have the best perspective on that," he said. "It's a tricky thing, because I never know what people mean by 'fast,' in a weird way. Does that mean that a lot of stuff happens in short order? There are other ways to look at that. But I would say yes."
Through the first two episodes, it's not. If anything, it's slower. There's a wordless seven-minute scene in which Mike fiddles with electronic equipment that will have even the biggest Trautheads drifting to their phones and saying they'll read a recap to see if what happens is important. (It is.) Of course, this is all in the service of a greater point — Mike is a meticulous planner who will tolerate the most tedious tasks if it gives him a deeper understanding of his objective and allows him to plan for the payoff down the line. Sounds like a certain showrunning duo, doesn't it?
But to Gould's point, a lot of stuff does happen in the first two episodes. The premiere picks up immediately where the Season 2 finale left off, with addled but cunning lawyer Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) having just secretly recorded his brother Jimmy confessing to falsifying evidence to make Chuck look bad in court, resulting in Chuck losing a big client to Jimmy's romantic partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Meanwhile, Mike was about to assassinate drug kingpin Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), only to be interrupted by a blaring car horn that led him to a note that said "DON'T," left by an unknown party on his windshield.
The next steps of each of these plot lines happen quickly in the Season 3 premiere. Jimmy even finds out about the tape sooner than you'd expect. It's not like Gilligan and Gould go on flights of fancy of pure atmosphere that add nothing to the plot. It's just that the plot is doled out at a different pace than viewers are accustomed to.
Expectations get upended all over the place. I will neither confirm nor deny that the much-heralded return of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) happens in the first two episodes, but I will advise viewers to not expect to see the ice-blooded supervillain of Breaking Bad any time soon.
Gould promised that the season "starts with a bang," which isn't exactly true. He also promised "so much rip-roaring conflict" that "goes to a new level." That remains to be seen, but after two seasons of Better Call Saul and five of Breaking Bad, most viewers are probably already in or out. And if they're in, they trust that Gilligan and Gould know how to deliver "rip-roaring conflict" of both the action and emotional variety. It may take awhile to get there, but it'll be worth it when it arrives, and the journey there sure was pretty, wasn't it?
Better Call Saul Season 3 premieres Monday, April 10 at 10/9c on AMC.