Film buffs love making lists. Any movie critic worth their salt can rattle off 10 or 20 titles they consider timeless, because great films are as compelling or entertaining or tissue-worthy now as the first time they were screened.
When I began covering television for a living, there was no equivalent tradition. TV critics did not compile canonical best-of lists, unless they were writing a book. We did 10-best lists, which were a ranking of the shows that aired that year. Some years we had to stretch. By the time you got to #10 you were usually picking through the rummage bin for the best of the mediocre shows. Ad-supported network TV was ephemeral; few shows aspired to timelessness. Nobody ever argued the merits of Bonanza versus The Mod Squad. The TV I grew up with was designed to be disposable, and posterity obliged.
In the late 1990s, the arrival of high-definition television and the eclipsing of broadcast by cable marked a decisive pivot toward shows that had movie production values, movie writers and movie stars. That's when critics and viewers began making all-time lists. HBO led the early entrants to the canon with The Wire and The Sopranos, and were joined by AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad, FX's The Americans and Justified, and maybe a comedy show or two. (Critics generally disdain reality shows, which are made without the help of the Screen Actors and Writers guilds.)
Even now there's pretty broad agreement among critics about the TV shows on their all-time lists. It's not like rating rock-and-roll LPs, where one site tried to aggregate all the critics' polls and wound up with the format for the radio station from hell. Last year BBC Culture polled 206 TV critics worldwide about the greatest shows of the 21st century (they really didn't need to time-date it: What were we going to do, nominate Benny Hill?). The "clear winner," named on half of all top-10 lists worldwide, was The Wire.
The Wire was never much of a ratings getter for HBO and famously took home zero Emmys. "But its impact on TV – featuring the kind of antiheroes, explicit action, authentic storylines and complex plotting that would become standard practice in the world of streaming television – has proven immeasurable in the years since it concluded," wrote Eric Deggans.
In recent months, though, I've been hearing rumblings among people who watch television for a living that there just might be a challenger to The Wire's Citizen Kane-level greatness: AMC's Better Call Saul, which airs its series finale on Monday.
An opening shot was fired across the bow last month by the estimable David Bianculli, who retired from full-time criticism in 2021 but still weighs in from his seat at NPR's Fresh Air.
"Better Call Saul, the AMC show which serves as both a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad, has been outstanding ever since it debuted in 2015," Bianculli wrote. "Depending on how well it sticks the landing in the final episodes of its sixth and final season, it could end up as the best dramatic TV series ever made."
There aren't many critics willing to go quite that far, though you certainly can find other respected voices talking up the show's legacy and wondering, as was true of the The Wire, why the producers, writers and stars of Better Call Saul refer to Emmy season as Passover. (The show is 0 for 39 in Primetime Emmys competition to date.)
But the larger question I have is: Why aren't more people talking about Better Call Saul? Seriously, there was more chatter when Superstore signed off. The legacy-building for Mad Men, Sopranos, Wire, even Breaking Bad was well underway before the series finale.
By all measures, Better Call Saul deserves to be in the conversation with those shows. It has made an icon out of Bob Odenkirk, for his unsettling portrayal of Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman — a man descending downward into the kind of person who could be of service to drug lords in Albuquerque — as well as Rhea Seehorn, who as his girlfriend Kim Wexler gets pulled into Saul's grifterly lifestyle and pays the price over her own slow descent into darkness.
I remember how astounding it was that David Simon was allowed to construct an elaborate, five-season-long arc for The Wire that wove through all of the major institutions of Baltimore — government, police, social services, media — and showed how the breakdown in law and order undermined everything that makes up what we call civilization. Well, Better Call Saul has added an audacious and totally original twist to that. The show, as Bianculli puts it, was reverse-engineered, with all the elements of Breaking Bad kicked several years into the past and set into motion anew, this time around a different lead and his similarly unsettling transformation. Now it is clear that the story that Vince Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould have told over these six seasons of Better Call Saul was every bit epic, tense and mind-blowing as the six seasons Gilligan built around Walter White in Breaking Bad.
Story and characters — is that not enough? Nope. It has to have a memorable ending too. It's a sign of how sophisticated the whole process of TV canon-making has become in the past 15 years, because I don't even remember how The Wire ended. Nowadays if a show fails to "stick the landing," it is considered a crippling blow to its legacy.
We remember how awful the last Seinfeld was, and some still haven't forgiven David Chase for ending The Sopranos on a bizarrely long cut-to-black. By contrast, Six Feet Under has risen in stature over the years because it did stick the landing, with a beautiful finale wherein each character was shown in the future on their deathbed, shuffling off their mortal coil.
But that worry seems baseless. Indeed, it feels like Gilligan and Gould wrote the landing before they wrote anything else about Better Call Saul. And in the years since they pitched this prequel/sequel to AMC, they have been gleefully stuffing the script with inspired ideas and crowd-pleasing guest appearances. The latest was introducing 89-year-old Carol Burnett — Carol Burnett!!! — in Episode 11, and without giving anything away, I'll just say it was much, much more than stunt casting.
But back to the question: Does Better Call Saul, ending or not, deserve to be in the conversation for the best show of all time? The reality is that only people who have watched all six seasons will be in a position to say. And that number right now is small. Though Better Call Saul is having a relatively huge season in the ratings, it's simply not getting as much buzz as shows once did, because there's been a fundamental shift in the way TV shows are covered. Thanks to streaming, there's so much TV now that it's become balkanized, much as music and movie entertainment were genre'd and sub-genre'd into little fandoms years ago.
And because of all the TV, it's simply easier to add Better Call Saul to your watch list and make a promise to yourself to watch it during the next blizzard/heat wave. Unfortunately, you can't -- at least not in its entirety -- because there is no watch list to add it to. The bean-counters at AMC sold the show's streaming rights to Netflix, which is all fine and good, except that historically there's been a months-to-years-long delay between a season's premiere on AMC and its debut on Netflix. For its part, AMC+ streams only the show's most recent episodes for about one month until their rights lapse.
What this means right now if that you want to watch the first eight episodes of Season 6, you've got no choice but to buy them via VOD on a site like Amazon at $2.99 a pop. I'm sure there are solid business considerations behind this decision, but it's absurd that AMC's most talked-about show isn't available to stream in its entirety on AMC+ today, and that it could be up to a year before the final season is added to Netflix.
So yes, Better Call Saul is one of the best. And someday it may enjoy status as the show that more critics consider to be TV at its very finest — the cleverest, densest, shockingest, best-written and -acted series of all time. But we've waited 12 seasons for it to play out. Be patient. It may take a while before we all catch up with it.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Better Call Saul