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"Manos" The Hands of Fate, Live!The live screening of the remastered / restored “Manos” The Hands of Fate is happening April 2, and you’re invited. All proceeds benefit The Trevor Project, and you’ll get to enjoy a great night out with a terrible movie and excellent conversation. Tickets are on sale as of today…and a few have already been sold! We need to sell quite a few more, though, in order for AMC to host the event.

Think of it like a Kickstarter. You don’t get charged unless the event actually happens. By purchasing a ticket, even if you can’t make it, you’re helping the event to happen, benefiting charity, and scoring yourself some sweet Noiseless Chatter swag.

Additionally, everyone who buys a ticket will be invited to a special, private, online screening / discussion of Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece of incompetence The Room.

Even if you can’t make it to “Manos” (but I sure hope you can!) you can enjoy The Room.

You can read more about the event here

But don’t forget to buy your tickets! Every purchase pulls this closer to happening, and I’ll hug each and every one of you who do. (Airfare not included.)

Noiseless Chatter presents…
Manos: The Hands of Fate – The Restoration

Thursday, April 02 8:30 PM – 10:15 PM
at AMC Highlands Ranch 24
103 West Centennial Boulevard, Highlands Ranch, CO, US, 80129
$12.00 General

Better Call Saul, "Hero"

It’s hard to believe Better Call Saul has only been on for four episodes. It feels as though it’s run for much longer. That’s an indication, I think, of just how effortlessly it slides into the vacancy left by Breaking Bad. It’s not a replacement in terms of subject matter — could Breaking Bad have devoted an hour of its precious time to squabbling over a billboard? — but in terms of quality, and the sheer amount of care that goes into every aspect of its production.

Watching “Hero,” something struck me. When Better Call Saul was first announced, I was worried. Not because I didn’t think Goodman (or Odenkirk) could sustain a show on his own, but because Vince Gilligan wouldn’t be writing it. He’d create it, get some plates spinning, and move on to his next project. He’d be leaving a universe he created in the hands of others, and that’s always a worrying prospect…even when the universe is nowhere near as complex and well-structured as the one he developed in Breaking Bad.

What struck me during “Hero” is this: Gilligan didn’t just write a great show; he taught a whole room full of writers how to write a great show.

Breaking Bad represents, from beginning to end, a remarkably sustained quality, and an even more strongly sustained vision. “Hero,” this most recent chapter in the life of Jimmy-cum-Saul, was written by Gennifer Hutchison…whose name was also attached to some excellent episodes of Breaking Bad. “I See You,” “Cornered,” “Salud,” “Buyout,” and “Confessions” represent her work for that show. In terms of tone, they have nothing — at all — in common with “Hero.” In terms of quality, they’re of a definite cloth.

What made Breaking Bad work at even its weakest moments — and what is making Better Call Saul work already — is a sense of artistry. There’s a level of attention given to the way shots are framed, costumes are fitted, and sets are designed that contributes to an overall feeling of mastery. At any given time, we may not know what we’re looking at, or why we’re looking at it. (Remember that kid on the dirtbike at the beginning of “Dead Freight”?) We stay attentive, however. Perhaps even more attentive, because we can trust the writers. When there’s the reassuring presence of an artist’s hand, we are willing to follow along.

“Hero” relies almost entirely on the artist’s hand, which isn’t to say it’s worse off for it. As of now I’d probably argue that it’s the weakest of Jimmy McGill’s outings, but that comes with the important caveat that it’s still very good, and oddly riveting.

The episode is responsible for a lot of setup that simply needs to be done, as until now Jimmy’s rivalry with Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill has been relegated to the background. It’s Hutchison’s job to catch us up and push that aspect of the story ahead.

It’s busywork, at least at its core. What salvages “Hero” is the fact that the show seems to revel in busywork…just like public defender Jimmy McGill. There may not be much at stake, but damned if we aren’t going to get a fireworks show.

The plot itself is simple: McGill buys and poses for a deliberately inflammatory billboard. I can’t go too much further than that without spoiling something, but I will say that once the episode comes to a close, it doesn’t actually amount to much more than what I just said. And that’s okay, because all throughout we’re sowing seeds for episodes to come.

We have lots of great character moments throughout, starting from the very beginning. Caught red handed, the Kettlemans hopelessly fumble their way through a justification for their crimes…one they obviously established a long time ago, and haven’t had to revisit since. That’s why when it’s finally verbalized it starts with some vague grandstanding about getting paid fairly for overtime and ends with them pointlessly reminding McGill that human slavery used to be legal.

It’s a well-observed moment; these people made a conscious choice to break the law, and reasoned themselves into a kind of comfort before doing so. What they were doing — they taught themselves to believe — wasn’t legal, but it was right. They talked about it and thought it through. They discussed it long into nightfall and then daylight. And once they convinced themselves, they never had to think about it again. Until now…when they reveal all their clever rationalizing to be hot air that no longer even convinces themselves.

Chuck also gets an incredible spotlight moment when he needs to venture out of the house to buy — not steal — a neighbor’s newspaper, in a sequence that I simply cannot describe without stripping it of all of its humor. Having said that, I absolutely need to gush over how wonderful it was that he not only left $5, but went to find a stone to weigh it down after it started to blow away. The return trip being shot from the neighbor’s perspective was just perfect, and that camera angle alone was probably responsible for my biggest laugh of the night. (I can’t wait for a spotlight episode on Michael McKean; I’m holding back most of my comments about his character until we learn a bit more.)

Also wonderful was McGill getting himself fitted for a decidedly Hamlin suit. At first I just assumed he was spending his windfall (more on that in a moment) on anything he’d need to look legitimate. A nice suit, certainly, would fit that bill. But then, after the tailor leaves, McGill wanders over to the shelves and starts considering hideous color combinations that hint at the Goodman within. Perfectly silent, and a perfect moment.

Actually, “Hero” is shot through with echoes of that character to come. We witness the earliest (chronologically speaking) occurrence of the name Saul Goodman, a deliberate pun on the part of a too-chummy Slippin’ Jimmy, and we’re reminded of something we learned in “Uno”: the fact that Jimmy McGill is not going to be able to practice law in Albuquerque under his real name. (Well, technically he can, but as the battle lines are drawn, it’s not unlikely that the change to Saul Goodman is the result of a fight poorly picked.)

But perhaps the biggest indication of what’s to come is how the night in the woods resolves itself. McGill does indeed offer to turn a blind eye to the money for a chance at representing the Kettlemans. He outright refuses a bribe, and offers, instead, his services.

It’s only when Mrs. Kettleman reminds him of something that he relents, and allows himself to be bought off. She reminds him, in a moment of perfect, inevitable heartbreak, that they won’t let him represent them…because he’s the kind of lawyer that guilty people hire.

I know he takes the money. I know how he accounted for it. (Literally.) And I know what he did with it.

But you know what?

Part of me truly hopes that there is some humanity in Jimmy McGill. That the fact that he seems to accept his status on the seedy end of the legal spectrum doesn’t suggest comfort or complicity.

No. I want to think that, on some level, he took the money because he wanted to change the fact that he was the kind of lawyer guilty people hire. The money could, as it does, buy him some valuable publicity. It could give him a platform he hasn’t had before. It could get him in front of the right kind of clients.

Buying himself into a living of doing public good isn’t the best way of getting there…but it’s a way.

Of course, we know who Jimmy becomes. What I’m hoping is that it takes him a little bit longer to get there, because nothing would thrill me more than seeing that the slippery slope to Saul Goodman appeared to him as a ladder to a better Jimmy McGill.

Some shows struggle at creating characters. Four episodes in, I wouldn’t blame Better Call Saul if that was the case here. But already these characters are already becoming people.

"Manos" The Hands of FateOn April 2, I will be hosting a live screening of the remastered version of “Manos” The Hands of Fate in Denver, CO. It’s to benefit The Trevor Project, there will be oodles of Noiseless Chatter swag available, and your ticket includes admission to a private, online event centering on a screening of The Room.

That’s right…even if you can’t make it out to Denver, you can buy a ticket, and have a hell of a time (while supporting a hell of a cause).

Thursday, April 02 8:30PM – 10:15PM
AMC Highlands Ranch 24
103 West Centennial Boulevard, Highlands Ranch, CO, 80129
$12.00 General

Tickets go on sale Friday, and you can get them here. You can also sign up for the event on Facebook by clicking here, but don’t forget to actually buy a ticket. Any sharing of the event to your like-minded friends is massively appreciated.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the coming weeks, but for now, I wanted to put it on your radar. You can read more about the event here, and I encourage you to do so, because this is going to be awesome.

It’s a great way to have an excellent night out (or night in…or both), contribute to a good cause, and snag yourself some Noiseless Chatter goodies.

I hope to see you there.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

We ended last week on a riveting cliffhanger: would ALF really devote an entire second episode to showing clips of itself?

Well, breathe easy, dear reader. The answer is yes!

Of course, we can’t hold this against “Tonight, Tonight.” As I mentioned in the last review, this originally aired as a one-hour special. While one hour of continuous ALF clips sounds very much like my own personal hell, it’s not quite as self-indulgent as airing two half-hours of clips on back to back weeks. We also can’t hold it against “Tonight, Tonight” that this particular clip show opens with a recap of last week’s clip show. As fucking bizarre as that is, it’s a quirk of breaking it into time-slot friendly chunks for syndication. I’ll save my venom for the stuff the show actually does wrong, rather than the wrong that gets done to it down the line.

After a reprise of last week’s telephone chat with Johnny Carson, ALF attempts to console the legendary talk show host by offering to spend a night in a hot tub with him. So…that happens. (And I have a revised vision of my own personal hell.)

Again, we don’t hear Carson’s voice, which is fully expected in one way (God knows he was well above this shit), and yet really strange in another…but that observation won’t make sense until later, so I’ll get to it then.

Anyway, Ed McMahon’s first line in the episode is “You’re in big trouble, mister,” because he mistakenly believed he agreed to guest star in that show starring the more famous Tanners. ALF tells him to go fuck himself and then shows five full minutes of clips. Wow, we really blasted right through the episode, didn’t we?

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

This string of clips includes one I’ve never seen before. It’s obviously an outtake, because Brian is smiling, but other than that I have no idea what I’m looking at.

ALF pulls on a rope or something while Kate screams at him to stop. He doesn’t, which is hilarious to the recorded sounds of laughing dead people. Then some plaster falls on the table while she holds her son close, resigning herself to the fact that every one of them will die in this house.

I have no idea what episode that clip is from. When I reviewed season one I was stuck using syndication edits, but since then the episodes have been uncut. Maybe it’s something that was trimmed from a season one episode, or maybe it’s yet another case of an ALF clip show “reminding” us of something that hasn’t even aired yet. Guess where I’m laying my bet.

Then we’re back on the set of The Tonight Show, and ALF says he needs to go somewhere. He asks Ed to take over hosting duties, but thinks better of it when he realizes that he can just show clips of himself instead. That way nobody has to stand around asking, “Where’s Poochie?”

There’s a theme to this set of clips, too. “ALF leaving the room.”

No, I’m not joking. We really do get a string of clips that show ALF traveling from one room to the other.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and then answer honestly: did this shit really need to be one hour?

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

We come back, but ALF isn’t there. Fred De Cordova takes a seat so that he can respect sitcom blocking limitations and asks where ALF went.

“Who cares?” Ed McMahon replies. “At least he’s gone.”

Man, who would have guessed Ed McMahon would turn out to be my soul mate?

Fred’s raising a valid question, but it’s not the question I’m raising. See, I’d prefer to know why the fuck this is still airing. In their universe, The Tonight Show seems to be treated like a live program. I’m willing to accept that as an explanation of why ALF manages to get away with a bit more than he should.

I’m not, however, willing to accept that as an explanation of why they let him go apeshit on their stage for a solid hour in front of a national audience.

I know it’s not good form to interrupt live programming and replace it with something else. You really shouldn’t do it unless there’s some kind of exceptional reason to, but I guess I’m old fashioned because I’d consider a space alien wrecking up the place to fit that definition just fine.

Fred De Cordova shouldn’t be asking where ALF went. He should already have shut down production, and viewers at home should be halfway into a classic Carson rerun.

The number one rule of live television isn’t “don’t stop.” That might be rule number two. Rule number one, however, is don’t, under any circumstances, broadcast a live waste of everybody’s time.

You either need to admit defeat and abandon The Tonight Show with Gordon Shumway, or you need to stab ALF in the brain with a screwdriver and let Ed McMahon take over for the duration.

Anyway, we find out where ALF is and…

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

I don’t know what this is.

I don’t.

I have no motherfucking clue what the motherfuck I’m looking at.

I’m broken. ALF broke me. I’ve lost all faith in humanity and want to cry.

I assume this is some kind of stolen Carson bit. I’m also assuming, like “Melmac the Magnificent,” there’s no twist given to the original material at all. Paul Fusco must have a motivational poster on his wall that reads IMITATION IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF PUPPETRY.

I’m assuming there’s no twist because nothing in this sequence has anything to do with ALF, ALF, Melmac, or anything else specific to the character. And I’m assuming it’s a pre-existing Carson bit because ALF does a very obvious vocal impression of him while he sells vitamins or who the fuck fucking fuck fuck.

There is an attractive blonde (the screen grab doesn’t do her justice, I promise) who gets to stand there while ALF insults her repeatedly until the skit ends, at which point she’s required to rub him while he quivers with sexual excitement. It’s quality television.

I don’t have any idea who this woman is, but for fuck’s sake almighty she earned her paycheck.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Then we get a commercial break, with one of those illustrated title cards. It’s ALF as the Statue of Liberty, reminding you that there is no God. It’s also a near-exact copy of a title card from the previous episode, and a near-exact reprise of the Mt. Rushmore gag we see in a clip from “Hail to the Chief.” Even by clip show standards, this is some lazy-ass bullshit.

Back in host-mode, ALF calls Ed McMahon “Edipus.” That’s sure to lead to some interesting explanations from the parents of the kids watching at home.

Then he introduces another set of clips and…well, I’ve got to be honest: I like them.

No, I do. I mean it.

They’re clips of ALF reciting a bunch of my Melmac Facts, and that actually works.

See, Melmac lore* is far from important to the show, but it adds a lot of flavor. New viewers may enjoy having this unfamiliar culture fleshed out for them, and current fans may enjoy the reminders of all the little details they’ve forgotten. It’s a condensed history of a civilization that makes up a huge, largely-unspoken part of ALF’s background…and which we’ve never seen, outside of a single scene in “Help Me, Rhonda.”

This is one of the very, very few things that actually deserves to be recapped. What’s more…they’re actually funny. Unlike most clips — which are obviously carved from a larger storyline and therefore feel out of place — these work perfectly well in isolation. They’re setup and punchline in one, not weighed down by their original contexts in the show and perfectly suited to being parceled out.

In one of the clips, ALF says, “On Melmac, some guy called me a snitch just because I turned him in to the Secret Police.” That’s a damned solid line, and it doesn’t matter what episode it comes from.**

By no means am I arguing that ALF needed a clip show, but I will say that as long as ALF is doing a clip show, this is exactly the sort of thing it should contain. Especially when the alternative is clips of ALF falling off of things and burping.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Shockingly, this perfectly-good series of clips is followed by the framing story’s first legitimately funny moment.

Ed McMahon informs ALF that their next guest, Pope John Paul II, is waiting backstage. ALF says, “Great! Let’s bring him out!”

To the strains of Ave Maria, the curtains part to reveal His Holiness.

At which point ALF says, “…right after I play these clips,” and the curtain falls right back in the pope’s face.

It’s an easy visual gag, but it’s perfectly timed. It works because it has exactly the right rhythm. It’s also a great, absurd way to parody the conventions of the talk show format…which is what a better sitcom would have been doing all along, rather than having its lead character buy right into it with no interesting spin whatsoever.

A moment like this belongs…well, it belongs in a comedy. What does it say about “Tonight, Tonight” that this qualifies as an exception? Well, it says what it’s been saying all along: this isn’t a comedy. It’s Paul Fusco’s late night pitch package.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Very strangely, this selection of clips includes one of ALF murdering Willie’s uncle. Is that really something that needs to be spotlighted? Is causing the death of a nice old man truly one of ALF’s most beloved moments?

How strange.

Rich Little*** then shows up on the set of The Tonight Show because Carson called him and asked him to go take over from ALF. I’m sure glad Johnny gave a shit about the fact that they’re broadcasting this trainwreck live, because nobody else working on it seemed to.

But, of course, Rich doesn’t take over. He just shows off his Johnny Carson impression for a few lines and steps back so ALF can have the spotlight again.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

…and this is why I’m confused by the fact that we didn’t hear Johnny on the phone earlier. If you’ve already paid Rich Little — and he’s already doing that impression in your episode — why not have him actually play Johnny in that conversation?

It’s weird that we have ALF doing a Carson impression, and then Little doing a Carson impression, but when Carson himself calls nobody is doing a Carson impression.

Maybe having Little-as-Little on the show instead of Little-as-Carson could have worked, but not just to trot him out and forget about him.

Perhaps Little could have done his Carson impression, just as he does here, followed immediately by ALF telling him that his impression sucks dick. Then the two of them could start competitively impersonating Johnny…kind of like Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden with their Michael Caine impressions in The Trip.****

But that would require Paul Fusco having to share the spotlight, and God fuckin’ forbid. Instead Little gets a few seconds to do his thing, and then we’re back to clips.

Jesus.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

We get our final title card (mercy of small mercies), and then ALF says, “Let’s put it to a vote. Was this the best Tonight Show ever?”

The audience, of course, applauds wildly. See that, network executives? ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS

And that’s pretty much the end of the show. This half was far more clip-heavy than the first, which makes it feel lazier but also makes it a hell of a lot more watchable.

A friend pointed out to me last week that Fusco’s egotism is in overdrive here and, necessarily, in the “We Are Family” Late Night scene. After all, he doesn’t just make ALF the guest on a talk show — which certainly would have made a lot more sense in either context — he makes him the host. ALF isn’t just popular enough to be featured on great shows…in Fusco’s mind, ALF should be the great show. Not because he earned it, but because he’s ALF.

To Fusco, ALF is already “bigger” than his own show. He appears here not in a fantasy sequence or a dream or anything like that…he’s just ALF, the real-world celebrity. Notice who hasn’t been invited to this networking luncheon? That’s right…literally anybody else from the show ALF. By no means is ALF in this together with the Tanners. The moment he, and Fusco, can shed them, they will be shed.

ALF is a prefabricated icon, designed to be plugged into everything imaginable. That lousy sitcom that bears his name? That’s just one thing of many that he does…or will do. He’s destined for bigger things…not like those limited supporting players Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Benji Gregory, or Andrea Elson. They should be glad to spend 80 hours a week in danger of breaking their spines for the honor of filming a show with him. They should be thanking him.

It says a lot that only ALF invites only himself to this hour-long celebration of ALF. The other actors could all have been killed in a bus accident (on their way, no doubt, to film on-location in the desert for “ALF’s Passable Passover”) and neither ALF nor Fusco would have been any worse for the loss. They were designed to be disposable.

In the comments for last week’s review, Casey reminded us that Kermit the Frog once hosted The Tonight Show. He was kind enough to leave a link, which I encourage you to click, but I confess I didn’t have the time to watch it between then and now.

I will, however, make a very confident assumption: it was a lot better than this.

ALF, "Tonight, Tonight (Part 1)"

Jim Henson was a skilled improvisor. He had to be; he worked with children an awful lot on Sesame Street. No matter how much you rehearse or write in advance, something is going to turn out differently than expected. Henson learned over the course of a long (but still far too short) career how to handle situations as they arose, and I can very easily see him making Kermit a fitting enough host for The Tonight Show.

Also worth noting, though, is that Henson was invited to perform Kermit as the host of that show. That, too, was the result of a career built on talent. Talent for comedy, talent for puppetry, talent for characterization. He advanced step by step through the entertainment world not because he forced it, but because there were people at every landing that recognized his talent and helped him forward.

Compare this, again, to the prefabricated nature of ALF. Kermit was invited to host The Tonight Show because The Tonight Show wanted him there; ALF was foisted upon The Tonight Show because Paul Fusco wanted him there.

But perhaps the most important difference is this: Kermit is a Muppet. ALF was just ALF. This meant that Kermit wasn’t some one-off oddity; he came with an entire world and culture behind him. And that world was populated by other Henson characters, as well as the characters of other performers. Kermit may well be the most famous Muppet, but if you ask 100 people about their favorite Muppet memories, you’re going to hear a lot about Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Scooter, Oscar, Grover, Bunsen and Beaker, Rowlf, Statler and Waldorf…the list goes on.

Henson never wanted to be a celebrity as much as he wanted an outlet for his creativity. He wanted to experiment. He wanted to test his own boundaries. Sometimes, to be totally honest, he failed. But let me be totally honest once more when I say that that doesn’t matter. Henson is — and surely will be for a long time — loved, revered, and remembered. He was by all accounts a great man who cared about the work he did and inspired more lives and careers than we could ever hope to count. He didn’t want to rocket himself to stardom and spit on the people below; he wanted to take everyone along with him.

You know that scene at the end of The Muppet Movie? The one where they reprise “The Rainbow Connection” and we see a massive throng of Muppets crammed together, performing it? That was Henson’s idea of heaven. Everyone was there. Nobody was more important than anybody else. Everybody had something to be thankful for.

By contrast, you know those scenes that I recapped this week and last? The ones where ALF is the star and he gets off on bossing people around and pissing them off? That was Fusco’s idea of heaven.

I’ll end with one more very illustrative (in my humble opinion) difference between Fusco and Henson.

As I’ve mentioned before, Paul Fusco never wanted anyone to see ALF as a character, or a puppet. ALF was ALF. This caused Tina Fey no end of logistical headaches as a minor ALF appearance on the NBC Anniversary Special meant investing far too much planning in ways to get ALF into shot without anyone seeing that he wasn’t real. It also explains why in all of the ALF outtakes I’ve seen (yes, even the racially charged diatribes), Fusco stays in character as ALF; he doesn’t talk to his costars between takes, he talks to them through the puppet. Because ALF is real.

A few years ago, I read The Wisdom of Big Bird, which is an absolutely lovely little book by Caroll Spinney, who played and still plays that Muppet. He relayed a story that, at the time, struck me the same way it seemed to strike Caroll. I have to paraphrase, so I apologize for any details that I get wrong, but Caroll and Jim Henson were together in an office, talking about some issue or another on Sesame Street. Henson got up to get something, and in doing so he kicked the Ernie puppet out of the way. Caroll was aghast. Reading it, I was too. Caroll said, “You kicked Ernie.” And Jim Henson, flatly, said, “Caroll. It’s a puppet.”

Only now, seeing that as the polar opposite of Fusco’s attitude, does it make sense to me. Henson wasn’t being disrespectful to his creation. To us, yes, Ernie is a character, but to him, it’s a puppet. At least, it’s a puppet until he’s giving it life.

Ernie had no inherent right to popularity or success. He was a creation of felt, staples, and cloth. Whatever audiences saw in him (which was a lot, as evidenced by Caroll’s reaction to seeing him get kicked around) was not innate; it had to be brought about through hard work on Henson’s part.

In other words, Henson knew he had to earn everything. Ernie didn’t have to, Kermit didn’t have to, Guy Smiley didn’t have to. But Jim Henson had to. And the more he let himself remain aware of the fact that the puppets were nothing without his gift of life, the more invested he became in working hard to develop them, and to make them the enduring characters they still are today.

ALF didn’t endure. And ALF couldn’t endure. Because, as far as Paul Fusco was concerned, he was fine on his own.

There was no reason to work at it; ALF had a bright future ahead of him. It was just a question of getting him out there and letting it happen.

We all see where that got him.

—–
* No relation to Adam.
** “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” though…just in case you were in danger of losing sleep.
*** I was curious about whether or not Rich Little was still alive. It turns out he is. In researching that fact, though, I discovered
Rich Little’s Christmas Carol. Forty five seconds of that garbage was enough to make me feel seasonal depression all over again. Look it up if you must…but know this: it’s so bad, even I am not cruel enough to include it in next year’s Xmas stream.
**** Or the same pair with their Al Pacino impressions in
Tristram Shandy. Both are highlights of their respective films.

Better Call Saul, "Nacho"

“Nacho” manages to be both the funniest and most tense episode so far, which is fitting, as the entire chapter is a study in contrasts.

From the superficial (the fact that the episode is named after a character who appears in only one scene) to the artful (McGill’s brutal confrontation with Mike gives way to a surprisingly tender moment between the two), expectations are established, subverted, and reverted.

As Tom Petty once sang, “Everything changed, and then changed again.” Six words that could sum up the entire episode.

My favorite establishment / subversion / reversion comes almost exactly halfway through the episode, when McGill is pursued by what he believes to be assailants. As he flees the police roll up, and he is overcome with cosmic gratitude. Then he realizes that the assailants were police themselves, and he’s under arrest. Flip-flopping tonality is something that poorly written television shows suffer from regularly. Better Call Saul (in this sequence specifically and in this episode in general) takes what lesser shows struggle to avoid and turns it into a kind of mission statement. The result is a masterful comic tension that “Nacho,” impossibly, sustains all the way through.

The first subversion comes as soon as the episode opens, nullifying last week’s cliffhanger while at the same time respecting it, and following it through. At the end of “Mijo,” Nacho approached McGill and asked him to assist in a robbery. McGill quietly watched him go, and we were left with two implied outcomes: either McGill helps Nacho, or he chooses not to.

This episode opens by showing us that McGill has chosen a third option: to warn the potential victims. To a yes/no question McGill indeed answered no, but he answered a very specific kind of no that ends up implicating him more deeply than a yes would have. Everything changed, and then changed again.

The victims in question are the Kettlemans. They’ve been important to the past two episodes as well, though I didn’t really have reason to get into them until now. In “Uno,” McGill loses a chance to represent Mr. Kettleman, who is accused of embezzling around one million dollars from the City of Albuquerque. Later, he enlists the help of two young con-artists to manipulate Mrs. Kettleman into hiring him…an attempted manipulation that leads McGill and his cronies to the desert at the beginning of “Mijo.” This is where McGill, in a fit of desperation, reveals his machinations to Tuco’s crew. And it’s why, at the end of that episode, Nacho makes him the offer that he does. He knows the Kettlemans have this money. The question is, does Jimmy McGill want a cut?

Or, at least, that’s the question we all inferred. And it’s certainly the question that Saul Goodman would have answered. (Quickly, and loudly.) Jimmy McGill instead helps himself to the cucumber water he isn’t allowed to have during business hours, gets drunk, and, little by little, figures out a way to do some good.

What follows is farce. Harrowing, terrifying farce. It’s like a lost episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil unintentionally sics a murderous drug dealer on a family of four. It’s that good, and that crazy.

It’s also, again, a study in contrasts. McGill using a very DIY voice modulator to warn the Kettlemans is hilarious…tempered immediately afterward by the shot of Nacho stalking them, and then their actual disappearance. It swings back to comedy, though, when a conversation with Kim reveals that it’s the same voice modulator he uses to play the part of the Sex Robot when they talk dirty to each other.

Contrast is everywhere. There’s the contrast between McGill believing Nacho to be guilty of kidnapping the Kettlemans, and Nacho believing McGill to be guilty of setting him up. There’s the contrast between Kim taking McGill to the ransacked Kettleman home to convince him to turn Nacho in, and the fact that the visit only ends up strengthening his resolve that Nacho had nothing to do with it. There’s the contrast between the Tonight Show aping of “Here’s Johnny!” at the start of the episode, and the Shining-sourced reprise of the same line at the end.

And, of course, there’s the sequence that begins with McGill and Mike coming to blows in the parking lot and ends with them coming to an unexpected mutual respect in the stairwell. Whenever we think we’ve got our tonal bearings, we hit another jolt. And never does it feel cheap. In fact, it feels like a mandatory part of this show’s DNA; Saul Goodman was introduced to us as the reliable comic relief in a world of decay and creeping misery. Now that we dive into the past to find out what made him who he is, we don’t see a world of grey areas so much as we see a world of endlessly, insanely flickering blacks and whites.

It takes a notable toll on our hero to do the right thing, and as soon as he does he’s hit with a series of incremental punishments. This in itself is enough of an explanation of how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman. When it’s easier — and maybe even safer — to do the wrong thing, how long can a beaten man continue to do right?

Last week I wondered what it would take to push a man over the line, to stop him saying “Absolutely not” and start him saying “Yes, please.” “Nacho” has that answer; you just make “absolutely not” lead, reliably, to tragedy. Doing the wrong thing is then redefined as not an act of selfishness, but an act of survival.

The question might not be “When do we get Saul Goodman?” It may actually be “When do we lose Jimmy McGill?”

Really, though, talk like that probably makes the episode sound more tense and less funny than it actually was. “Nacho,” sincerely, is a riot. McGill getting unwittingly drafted to act as Nacho’s attorney (“…you sure he asked for me?”) is great, as is Odenkirk’s floundering as he tries to force his nervousness to evolve into confidence when meeting with his new client. (More contrast for you, there.) And the line of the night comes courtesy of Jimmy’s complete lack of self-awareness as he scolds Kim: “You see? This is why people hate lawyers.” That’s character building through brilliant punchlines, there. How often do you see that?

I don’t think “Nacho” hit the highs of “Mijo,” but I also think it accomplished something very different than that episode did. Whereas “Mijo” assured us the show could achieve greatness, “Nacho” shows us the show’s inherent cleverness, spinning an intentional befuddle out of what — at heart — is a simple, uncomplicated mystery.

My only real question about the episode is the ending. The way the duffel bag rips open, spilling money everywhere, is played like a revelation. I’m not sure why. Did I jump the gun on assuming the Kettlemans were guilty? Maybe that was something I wasn’t supposed to realize until the end…but the fact that they kidnapped themselves rather than turn to the police cemented it for me well before we saw the evidence.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It doesn’t seem to be either an effective shock or a riveting cliffhanger. We expected them to have the money, and then they are shown to have the money. I may well be missing something here (go to town, dear reader), but even if I’m not, it barely amounts to a complaint.

When a story is told this well, I’m not going to quibble about its punctuation.

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