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Author Archives: Philip J Reed

Check out this ALF syndication trifold!

May 3rd, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in advertising | alf | television - (2 Comments)

Yeah, I know, my post title sucks, but I don’t really have a running feature on the blog I can tie this to. It’s just a piece of pretty cool television history that I can’t find anywhere on the internet. For all I know, I have the last surviving copy and am therefore morally obligated to drop it into a volcano.

But, what the hell, I’ll archive it for future generations instead.

I saw this at a convention, and Casey Roberson was nice/vindictive enough to buy it for me. The vendor described it as a piece of promotional material sent to networks to see if they wanted to air ALF. He wasn’t wrong, but I assumed he meant for its initial run. Instead this was distributed in 1989, toward the end of the show’s run, promoting the availability (starting fall of 1990) of ALF for strip syndication.

Strip syndication refers to a show’s reruns airing at a fixed time across the entire week, thereby showing up as a long “strip” when laid out on a TV schedule.

Of course that also means the trifold gets to play into the naughty definition of “strip” and present ALF as a Playmate centerfold. This means I own the only official piece of ALF pornography ever produced.

Now you see why I’m bothering to archive it!

Anyway, I’m including pictures, but since I just have an iPhone I’ll also transcribe the text. I intend to be as accurate as possible, right down to any typos or punctuation issues. Feel free to point out any you see in my transcription, though, just in case they’re my own.

I have seen some of the details here in other places (such as ALF’s favorite Melmacian TV shows) but since I can’t find a copy of this anywhere, I assume there was just some overlap with copy found in other materials.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Tanners aren’t mentioned here at all. This is trying to sell a show without even paying lipservice to four of the five main characters.

That’s our ALF!

Anyway:

Front: The Centerfold


The centerfold features ALF lying naked on a beach. You’re welcome.

The only text is “CELEBRITY OF THE MILLENNIUM” and “MR. TELEVISION.”

There’s also a “Love, ALF” signature. Thanks to this and the next page, we have the best look at his handwriting we could ever want. Analyze away, graphologists!

The copyright notice in the lower right reads:
ALF is a Registered Trademark of Alien Productions ®
© 1987 Alien Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Yes, I know the copyright notice says 1987 and I said it was circulated in 1989, but you’ll see where I got that date later. This must just be the copyright date for the image, as the text is clearly selling the show for syndication in 1990, which is not something they would have been doing in 1987. The text, therefore, may not be copyrighted at all, so feel free to use it to advertise your own show about a farting puppet.

Inside Left: Celebrity Data Sheet


This page features three promotional photos of ALF and one from “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” where he’s dressed as legendary womanizer Elton John. We also get some definitive MELMAC FACTS regarding his birthday, but I don’t get whatever joke they’re trying to tell by giving him two of them. Then there’s the insight nobody expected that he wants to fuck the cat from the 9Lives cans. (And, I guess, Mr. Ochmonek.)

Anyway, the text:

CELEBRITY DATA SHEET

NICKNAME: ALF REAL NAME: Gordon Shumway
HEAD SIZE: 33″ WAIST: 33″ HIPS: 33″
HEIGHT: 3’2″1”’ WEIGHT: ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie
BIRTH DATE: August 12 and October 2, 1757 PLANET: Melmac (Lower East Side)
FAVORITE EXPRESSION: “Curiosity Killed the Cat” (Usually followed by the expression “Pass the Plum Sauce”)
TURN-ONS: Morris the Cat, High Nielsens, Hawaiian Shirts
TURN-OFFS: Empty Fridge, Short Jokes, Alien Task Force
FAVORITE MOVIES: “It Came From Outer Space”, “Mars Needs Women Now” and “Hair”
A GOOD WOMAN IS: Friendly, Funny and Furry
SECRET FANTASY: To be a regional sales manager for Meow Mix

Inside Center


THE HOTTEST THING IN PRIME TIME IS AVAILABLE FOR STRIPPING.

Inside Right: Interview


He’s hip, he’s hot, he’s ALF, the biggest thing to hit television since the remote control. On the occasion of his highly successful NBC-TV prime time smash being made available for strip syndication (starting fall ’90), we interviewed the old ALFer.

We caught up with ALF at the refrigerator on the set for a candid, far-reaching conversation.

Q: Thanks for taking the time from your busy schedule to do this interview.
ALF: No problem. Mind if I eat a pot roast while we chat?
Q: Not at all. Were you ever on television before you got your own series?
ALF: Yes. I was a contestant on Melmac’s most successful game show, “Wheel of Cheese.” I won a sofa, a set of mock luggage and a styrofoam goat.
Q: Pretty impressive. Were you the biggest winner?
ALF: No, actually Tyrone Split was the biggest winner. He was seven foot three and weighed three-hundred and forty-seven pounds. Ha! I kill me!
Q: And us as well. Are you the only Shumway to enter show business?
ALF: Oh, no! My Uncle Goomer Shumway was a famous actor. He starred in great Melmacian movies like “Cat on a Hot Tin Griddle,” “Gone With the Fish,” and “Luncheon Counters of the Worse Kind.”
Q: Let’s talk about your amazing success on television. Your popularity on NBC has been growing stronger each week, your demographics show that you have a perfect audience composition, and now you are destined to become a hit in syndication. Why do you think that you made such a huge impression on our whole planet?
ALF: I hit it pretty hard when I crash landed. Hey, if I wasn’t wearing my seat belt, I’d look like Sean Penn.
Q: What do you think of earth television?
ALF: Hey, by watching television I learned that the world was black and white before 1953! But television on Melmac was funnier. Shows like “I Dream of Homer,” “Bowling for Rice,” and “As The World Explodes.” Even though the last one hits a little close to home now.
Q: Sounds interesting.
ALF: It does? Is this going to take a lot longer? I have a drumstick here that’s growing bacteria!
Q: Just a few more questions. You’re entering the syndication marketplace next to shows like “Cosby” and “M*A*S*H.”
ALF: I can see the line-up now. Huxtable, Hawkeye and Hairball! Ha! I kill me!
Q: You’ll be making lots of money.
ALF: Yes, but it’s only paper. On Melmac we paid with fur. If you over-spent, you went bald. And we don’t want station managers going bald. I realize in some instances we may be a bit late.
Q: Well, ALF, I’ll wrap this up. You’re an alien who has it all. A hit network show, the admiration of millions…
ALF: This drumstick that’s hardening before my eyes…
Q: But what’s next for ALF? What are your dreams?
ALF: I do have one recurring dream about showing up for work and realizing that I’m not wearing any pants. But then I remeber that I don’t work and I never wear any pants.
Q: Thanks for your time, ALF. Many thanks for this revealing interview.
ALF: My pleasure. Sure you don’t want some pot roast?
Q: No, thanks. There’s no silverware.
ALF: So?

ALF
alien productions

LORIMAR™
SYNDICATION
A LORIMAR TELEPICTURES COMPANY

So, yeah, there you go! It’s actually pretty cool. It was wrapped in plastic when we bought it, so I didn’t get a good look at it until later. The Playboy similarities are pretty tame, and it’s nothing a child would recognize, so I can imagine this was a really nice take-home for station managers whose kids loved the show. It’s a cool bit of very rare memorabilia, and if I had gotten my hands on it as a kid I would have thought it was great.

Does anyone else know more about this? I wonder what other bits of ALF ephemera are lost to the ages.

It’s laminated like a restaurant menu, which means it’s stayed in pretty good shape through the years, and I’m both happy to have it and thrilled that I get to be the one to preserve it online. Mainly, though, I hope you are as upset as I am that this is the third different “here’s what Melmacians used for currency” joke. Whoever wrote this should be FIRED FROM ALF.

Before I got to watch this episode, I saw somebody say that “Sabrosito” felt a lot like Breaking Bad. That didn’t spoil anything, of course, but I knew exactly what must have been meant by that: there’d be a lot of Mike.

That’s interesting to me. As many characters from that legendary show pop up in this one (“Sabrosito” adds Don Eladio to the list), it’s only Mike that feels the same. In some cases that’s clearly by design. Jimmy — the other main Breaking Bad character — is at an entirely different phase of his life. We may see him act like Saul Goodman now and then, but he’s still James Morgan McGill. He pursuing different things than Saul was, in different ways. He has different ways of approaching his problems. His station is almost entirely distinct from the one in which we find him during Breaking Bad.

But Mike is Mike. He loves his granddaughter, he’s willing to get his hands dirty, he has an identifiable personal morality, and he has a preternatural gift for Getting Shit Done. He is the character we remember from that other show, with the only differences between incarnations being superficial.

Jimmy needs to become someone else. Literally. Mike just needs to shake someone’s hand and make it official.

So when people say that Better Call Saul feels like Breaking Bad, they’re almost certainly referring to a Mike scene. After all, the previous “feels like Breaking Bad” episode was season one’s excellent “Five-O,” which was the Mike origin story we never initially got. Jimmy barely figured into it, and barely figures into it again this week.

We’ll talk about Jimmy more next week, but for now I want to make a point: Mike is no longer the one character that makes the show feel like Breaking Bad. Now we have Gus Fring.

I’m okay with this, but I’m also a little surprised. In the media runup to season three, I read an interview with Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the character. I don’t remember much — I may have skimmed to avoid spoiling things — but I do recall him saying that the Gus we meet in Better Call Saul isn’t quite the one we knew in Breaking Bad. I’m necessarily paraphrasing, but the sentiment seemed to be “Gus is still getting the hang of things, growing into the character we remember.”

Now, a few episodes into his life on Better Call Saul, I don’t buy that one bit. Either Esposito is trying to convey that on screen and failing, or…well, I don’t know what the alternative is. But whatever the alternative is, that’s what I’m betting.

Gus is already Gus. Not precisely the same Gus but, again, the difference is the same as it was for Mike: superficial. He’s everything we remember in broad strokes, and we just need to sync up a few details.

Jimmy is a completely different character…as is Hector. Those two appear here in distinct, unique incarnations. Those two each face a journey — clearly tragic — that will eventually deposit them where we remember them being. Mike and Gus are just killing time.

I’m not complaining…I’m just thinking out loud. As this show and Breaking Bad pull closer together on the highway, it’s tempting to compare them more directly, and to think of what happens here not as events unique to this show, but as ones that lay groundwork for the other.

And I’m still kind of disappointed by that. Better Call Saul doesn’t deserve to live in the shadow of Breaking Bad, but it so frequently seems to want to. It’ll carve out an identify for itself here and there, when it can do so without stepping on the other show’s toes. And, frankly, I don’t think that should be its consideration. It can be fun when Breaking Bad characters swing by to say hello, but lately it feels as though the space occupied solely by Better Call Saul is getting thinner and thinner. We aren’t winking at the parent series; we’re turning massive amounts of screentime over to it wholesale.

Does that matter if it’s good screentime though?

Maybe and maybe not. As of now, I still love Better Call Saul. But if it gravitates toward becoming Breaking Bad: The Lost Episodes, I’m going to be far less interested. I’ve seen that show. I own it on DVD. I can revisit it whenever I like, at my leisure. I don’t need to tune in weekly to Better Call Saul if I want to see it. Rather, I should be tuning into Better Call Saul because I want to see Better Call Saul.

Mike is fun to watch, but I can’t say his story — as we know his character remains constant — is anywhere near as interesting to me as Jimmy’s — as we know his character transforms. Gus is fun to watch, but I can’t say his story — as we know his character remains constant — is anywhere near as interesting to me as Hector’s — as we know his character transforms.

You see what I’m getting at here. There are things only Better Call Saul can do. And then there are things Breaking Bad already did.

It feels strange to criticize something like “Sabrosito” for this, because “Sabrosito” is very good. It’s well acted, well written, well shot. It’s thrilling and funny and scary. It held me rapt for 50 minutes or so while feeling like it went by far more quickly.

It was a good episode of television.

There’s just a question of whether or not it was a good episode of Better Call Saul.

On the whole, I admit that I like the more direct Breaking Bad stuff here. The Don Eladio scene at the beginning fleshed out the backstory we saw teased in the “Hermanos” episode of that other show. There Hector killed Max, somebody who clearly meant a lot to Gus. Fine, and that’s all we needed to know. But here we see how Hector’s dealing and Gus’s dealing overlap, and why these mortal enemies had a common associate in Don Eladio at all.

Did I need to know any of that? Of course not. But it’s nice to shade in some detail.

Even more I liked Hector showing up at Los Pollos Hermanos, as the question of how Gus’s less savory dealings might collide with his outward professional life was only hinted at in Breaking Bad. Here Hector crushes the distinction, and it’s both very funny and very scary.

What I love most about having Hector back is that Mark Margolis really gets to stretch his legs (…sorry) in a way he didn’t in Breaking Bad. There he was confined to a wheelchair in anything other than flashbacks, and could only communicate through a bell and a series of angry expressions. Here he…asserts himself. Shows us who Hector is. Reminds us of why he was such an imposing figure in the first place.

The scene in which Hector’s crew takes the restaurant hostage — with some nice touch-and-go theatrics as a woman and her child attempt to leave — was fantastic, and it demonstrates what an absolute treasure Margolis really is. He’s a comedy villain that’s sometimes comic and sometimes villainous without either trait undercutting the other. It’s a hell of a daring balance and it pays off marvelously.

And that’s what Better Call Saul needs to be doing more of if it really wants to retread old ground: show us parts of it we haven’t seen.

Don’t rush to get Jimmy into his new identity, because we’ve seen that. Don’t eat too much time showing us Gus glowering into the middle distance, because we’ve seen that.

Show Hector savoring a cigar while fast food employees yell at him, or scraping dogshit off his shoe onto Gus’s desk. Show Mike playing door repairman and quietly enjoying his torment of Chuck with a power drill.

Show us this world. Don’t show us that one from a negligibly removed perspective; show us things we couldn’t have seen before.

Dead characters are alive. Side characters are leading men. Moments we’ve only ever alluded to can be dug deeply into for their full comic and dramatic impact. Characters we’ve never even heard of are here, just waiting to give us something every bit as memorable as that towering show that came before.

There’s so much ahead of us.

“Sabrosito” proves that.

But it also shows how willing Better Call Saul is to look backward instead.

Better Call Saul is about how the world of this show becomes the world of Breaking Bad. But that’s not all it’s about.

We’ve talked almost weekly about the running theme of loose predestination; the precise details of your future may not be laid out, but your general direction sure as hell is. And part of the drama of Better Call Saul is waiting for gravity to reassert itself, to send lofty dreams crashing back down to Earth, to injure (in so many ways) those it was already decided would never be allowed to fly.

It’s also, however, about relationships. And that’s both the central theme of “Sunk Costs” and the filter through which we should understand it.

Of course, the beauty is that it’s still about everything else we expect from Better Call Saul. We get further insight into Mike’s relationship with Gus. And Gus’ relationship with Hector. And Jimmy’s relationship with Francesca. All of that will inform the events we remember from Breaking Bad, as well as the ways in which they unfolded. Who stood by whom. Who knew what they could get away with. Who failed to walk away when they should have.

And, of course, predestination is written all over “Sunk Costs.” Jimmy isn’t meant to be an honorable lawyer — no matter how “noble” his calling, as the judge presiding over his felony case put it — and so his brother will see to it that he becomes a dishonorable one. Jimmy was once a criminal, and to criminality shalt he return. Chuck isn’t an agent of justice; he’s an agent of destiny.

But what the episode explores more thoroughly are the relationships between its characters, all of which define the show as we know it, and make the inevitable crash that much more difficult to bear. When the relationships are negative, it hurts, because we like these characters. And when the relationships are positive, it feels almost worse, because we know the fall will come from that much higher.

We’ve spent a good amount of time in these reviews digging into the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. And, frankly, if you’ve watched the episode I can’t imagine I’ll be able to tell you much new. This is perhaps the rawest, most emotionally vulnerable we’ve ever seen Chuck…and he’s still kind of a dick.

I like Chuck. I feel bad for him. I pity him. And yet he treats his underhanded scheme as a way of moralizing. As a way of preaching emptily to the little brother that he’s literally about to send to jail. Chuck is the parent justifying his abuse of a difficult child. “If you’d behave, I wouldn’t have to do this.”

And there’s satisfaction in his eyes. He has nothing to worry about. When Jimmy stormed Chuck’s home last week, he asked Chuck if that tape was worth tearing the family apart. Chuck’s demeanor in this episode suggests that his answer was, “What family?”

Jimmy isn’t a brother; he’s a nuisance who carries — and tarnishes — the McGill name. Jimmy sunk the family business. Jimmy was a well-known local scam artist. Jimmy bought a mail-order degree and started messing around with the criminal justice system. A chimp with a machine gun, as he put it. What’s worse, a lot of people liked the chimp better. Kim. Rebecca. They boys’ own mother.

Chuck doesn’t think of Jimmy as family, however much lip service he might pay the idea when it suits him. (Read: when he can use it to make Jimmy feel worse.) He thinks of Jimmy as a rival. A less talented, less intelligent rival, against whom he nevertheless can’t seem to succeed. He frames his “lesson” to Jimmy as an opportunity for the younger McGill to straighten his life out. But we learn later (as if we didn’t already know) that it’s just Chuck’s method of getting him out of the way.

That’s what we learn when Chuck lays himself bear for his own attorney. He’s interested in pressing charges, sure…but not to help his brother. He just wants his brother out of his hair, doing something else for a living. Jimmy sunk the family business, and now Chuck’s going to sink his. There are many reasons to avoid a trial, but we see that Chuck’s is simply that he has a better way to cripple his brother’s future.

What a guy.

It’s not a surprise, exactly, but I do think it’s the nearest look we’ve ever gotten at Chuck’s view of the relationship. We’ve already seen Jimmy’s, many times over. He loves Chuck. He cares about Chuck. When something happens to Chuck, he’ll drop everything and scamper over there to help. (Which, of course, is what got him into this particular mess in the first place.) That’s how Jimmy views Chuck: as family. He looks up to his older brother, and his older brother won’t even look at him.

Of course, that’s the relationship Chuck chose to squander. However much or little truth was in it, Jimmy suggested that the next time Chuck needs him, he won’t be there. Brotherhood doesn’t work just one way. If Chuck is going to definitively betray that relationship, Jimmy will do the same.

Smaller relationships find themselves explored, as well. Gus and Mike, for instance, who bond in some way over a mutual antagonist. Jimmy and Francesca, as mentioned, who build a level of trust here that will see them through some far more difficult times, and which unintentionally establishes her as a co-conspirator. Sure, she’s just helping him pick up a car now, but she’ll be calling Hank and impersonating hospital staff before too long. The seeds are sown today, with the sad-eyed boss just needing a hand…

And we see what kind of fallout these relationships — and the dynamic schemes and counter-schemes within — have on innocent victims. We’re reminded (clearly deliberately) of the fact that Hector killed the man who found his driver tied up. That’s what raised Mike’s hackles, and ultimately caused him to lash out a second time here, with Gus’s blessing.

His plan to sic the DEA on Hector, however, embroiled two relative innocents more directly: the drug mules who were smuggling goods and money across the border, and who definitively have their lives ruined. Then, of course, there’s poor Ernesto…used as a pawn by his boss to exploit his loyalty to a friend. Ernesto has been fired. Chuck doesn’t bother to mention that to his attorney.

But the real relationship at the heart of Better Call Saul is the one that’s destined to be the most painful. It is, of course, the relationship between Jimmy and Kim.

I love Better Call Saul. Let me make that clear. But part of me wishes it could just become something else entirely. Because we know Jimmy loses Kim. And I wish he didn’t. Mainly because…well…I don’t want to lose Kim.

If I may speculate wildly, here’s my suspicion: AMC greenlights Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan and his excellent writing staff gets together to decide how best to tell that story. For obvious reasons, they latch onto whatever small details of Saul’s past he let slip during Breaking Bad. One by one, they show us those things and connect the threads in between. Fine.

One of those details, though, was Saul’s gaggle of ex-wives. I can’t offhand remember how many there were, if we were ever told, but we know there was more than one. So Better Call Saul gets to invent some relationships for its protagonist.

Fine.

Then they create Kim.

And now they’re stuck. Not because it was a bad decision, but because it was too good. Because now they have Rhea Seehorn playing this incredible character week after week, living a life of her own. She’s a perfect foil for Jimmy, but she’s also a perfect fit. She may have been invented out of necessity, but the show’s first experiment with a partner for Jimmy is one that’s destined not to be topped, and one that cannot in good conscience be squandered.

I don’t know if I’m correct. I may never know. But I wonder if any of the writing staff feels the way I do…that they wish Better Call Saul could shift, all at once, into an alternate-universe story instead. That Kim does get to stick around. That Jimmy may drag her through the muck a bit but that he won’t become unlovable to her. That what they have — what they share, what they build — will miraculously flower as a whole other future. One that may not last, but one which they can at least have.

Of course, gravity will reassert itself.

It always does for these characters.

Jimmy refusing to let Kim represent him was probably the single saddest moment this show has given us yet, because it shows how protective he is of her…how much he’d rather fail of his own accord than have her get dirty trying to save him. And the fact that she understood…and stayed by his side…and promised him as the episode ended that they’d fight together…and took his hand in silhouette…

There’s promise there. The real promise of a real future.

And we already know it ends.

The fact that we don’t know how it ends is what fuels the tension.

The fact that we know it won’t be pretty is what fuels the heartache.

Kim — the person and the character — has the misfortune to be here instead of somewhere else…somewhere that might allow her a happy escape.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 3, 1990)

April 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in fight megaman | video games - (1 Comments)

I want to love Mega Man 3. I really do. It’s often spoken of in the same breath as genuine classics. It’s rarely criticized for anything other than superficial reasons. It’s adored, with many fans holding it up in comparison with Mega Man 2, as though it’s impossible to declare which of the these great games is better.

I will declare. Mega Man 2 is better. And I don’t see how Mega Man 3 can even compete.

But I want to love it. I really do. Mega Man 3 does so much right. It introduced the slide, which is now a distinguishing feature of Mega Man’s moveset, and which so elegantly adds an entirely new wrinkle to navigating stages and avoiding enemies. It introduces not one but two great new characters: Rush the utility dog and Proto Man, our hero’s moody and conflicted older brother. On top of that, its soundtrack contains some of the best tracks in video game history.

And yet…it’s not a great game.

It might be a good one. It probably is.

But it’s not great. It’s flawed and unbalanced. It’s glitchy and in some cases more rickety than the first game was. It’s a step backward when it had all the potential of being another great leap forward.

And so as much as I want to love Mega Man 3, I don’t. I can’t. And this is probably going to be the saddest review of it you’ll ever read.

By the time Mega Man 3 was released, I was already a firm acolyte of Mega Man 2. My friends and I played it endlessly. We designed Robot Masters and stages of our own. (One of mine was VCR Man. He probably wielded the weapon Planned Obsolescence. My friend Jimmy asked why they all had to be Man. Why not Woman? It would be decades before he got his wish.) I even bought and read that terrible Worlds of Power novelization.

So, no, I wasn’t looking at Mega Man 3 with an objective viewpoint. (Worth repeating: as an individual forming an opinion on somebody else’s work of art, that would have been impossible.) But neither was I closed off to it. In fact, I liked Mega Man 3 a lot more then than I do now. It’s only time and reflection and a greater capacity for articulation that I’ve come to realize how…disappointing it really is.

It’s not, however, a game devoid of new or interesting ideas. In other words, it’s not disappointing in the standard way that sequels are disappointing, in which the same beats are repeated to diminished returns. Mega Man 3 pushes itself, and does some truly fantastic stuff along the way.

Where it falls down is in its execution, and that represents its step backward. Whereas Mega Man 2 proved that the developers had the potential to refine their ideas to incredible, unforgettable degrees, Mega Man 3 slid right back into Mega Man territory…throwing so many new ideas around that none of them feel complete.

I know, I know. Who am I to say any of this? Don’t people love Mega Man 3? Isn’t it highly regarded? Isn’t it a classic video game?

It is. And I’d never attempt to take those accolades away. But I do think that Mega Man 3 is a better game in our minds and memories than it is in reality.

I want to love Mega Man 3. I want to adore it. I want to be able to say that it took every ounce of merit from its predecessor and enhanced it.

But I can’t.

I try, and I try, and I can’t.

I can say a lot of things in its favor. I can make a list of all of the things it gets just right. I can gush about stage tunes like Gemini Man, Top Man, Magnet Man, Shadow Man, and Spark Man all night long. But then I play the game, as I have to, and it find it impossible not to trip over its mistakes. Impossible not to question its design philosophy. Impossible not to…wish I was playing almost any other game in the series.

I know. I know.

I’m a terrible person.

But let’s focus on the good up front, because Mega Man 3 has loads of it.

My favorite thing about the game — aside from its stellar soundtrack — is a brilliant, tiny tweak that a lot of people probably don’t even notice started here. In first game, Mega Man would defeat a Robot Master, pick up a mysterious object, and get bumped back out to the stage select. It was up to the player to pause the game in the next level to see that they had a new weapon…which I’m sure many early gamers overlooked entirely. Mega Man 2 made the acquisition of weapons more explicit, with some text (and a pulsing beat) explaining what you got.

That’s fine. That’s more than fine. In fact, that small improvement was all we needed.

But Mega Man 3 does it so much better. Now Mega Man stands alone in the empty boss room for a moment, then leaps into the air and is showered with swirling particles. In fact, it’s the same effect used by the Robot Master (and Mega Man himself) when he explodes…only now it’s reversed and directed inward. It’s a perfect visual indication that somebody has lost the duel, and somebody has won. To the victor literally go the spoils.

Then the pause window pops up so that you can see a new weapon in your inventory, at which point its energy bar noisily fills…tempting you to rip right into your new gift and start experimenting with it. It’s great. It’s a lovely tweak to the stage-ending sequence, and it’s the best celebratory moment the series has offered us yet.

And then we get a great splash screen with Mega Man caught mid-leap (always the best way to catch a Mega Man sprite, as our history of jumping through boss doors has empirically proven) and yet another fantastic, searing song blazing in the background. It’s a longer song than you probably realize, too; let the screen sit for a while and enjoy it.

But there’s a dark corollary to all of this incredible, impressive, weapon-get bombast…and that’s the fact that the weapons absolutely stink.

None of them feel very fun to use, and in a game that’s built around experimentation, that’s a real problem. What’s more, they’re often buggy, lending them an air of carelessness that makes you wonder why you’d want to play with them if the developers didn’t bother properly coding them.

Of the weapons, the Shadow Blade is probably the best. It’s essentially a Metal Blade crossed with a Rolling Cutter, and that’s a good thing, because those weapons were great. Its range isn’t wonderful, but it’s still the one weapon worth using. And there’s the Needle Cannon, which is more or less innocuous. It’s a differently shaped Buster pellet, and hardly fills the mind with possibilities. Present, but inoffensive.

Then there’s…the rest.

The Magnet Missile is great when it works, which it often doesn’t. Its intention is to home in on enemies, but it will many times miss them entirely or phase right through them without causing damage. The Hard Knuckle crawls so slowly across the screen that it’s literally always faster to kill enemies with your basic weapon, even when they’re technically weak to the Hard Knuckle. The Search Snake makes some snakes. Nobody cares.

The worst are the Spark Shot and the Top Spin. The former just freezes enemies in place, much like the Ice Slasher, but this time Mega Man can’t switch weapons to kill the stunned enemy; all you do is freeze enemies in your own way. It’s awful. The Top Spin is just odd; it’s a pirouette Mega Man can only perform in the air, and it’s a crapshoot whether you or the enemy you strike takes the damage. And how much damage. And how much weapon energy it uses. If you wanted evidence that Mega Man 3 has sloppy coding, look no further. (Having said that, though, once you get the Top Spin you really should spin through the boss doors at least once.)

The most puzzling is the Gemini Laser, which introduces so much lag to the game that it’s almost unusable, and there’s no excuse for that. While Mega Man and Mega Man 2 both lagged at various points, it was always understandable; so much was happening on the screen that of course the little NES would struggle to keep track of it all. With the Gemini Laser, all you’ve done is fire a weapon. You know. Your primary way of interacting with objects in the game. The lag is inexcusable.

We spoke for a bit in Mega Man 2 about how the weapons were given a layer of nuance by allowing them to do things other than fly straight forward when the B button is pressed. Mega Man 3 takes this a step backward, with much less — and much less interesting — complexity.

In this game, only three weapons allow for any degree of adjustment. The Shadow Blade can be thrown in many directions, like the Metal Blade. So far, so good. The Hard Knuckle can be steered slightly up or down by pressing the appropriate direction on the D-pad after firing, and the Needle Cannon can be rapid-fired by holding B.

And that’s it.

The Top Spin does at least ask the player to think differently about how to use it, as you need to press A to jump and then press B while in the air, but no player should ever be using the Top Spin so that doesn’t really count.

Storywise Mega Man 3 doesn’t offer much that the previous games did not. There are some bad robots, and Mega Man is a good robot who kills them off one by one, then smacks their boss around for a bit.

It’s with this game, though, that I’d argue that Dr. Light goes from trusting to learning disabled. In Mega Man Dr. Wily betrayed Dr. Light, turned all of the robots they designed together evil, and set about destroying civilization. In Mega Man 2 Dr. Wily, unprovoked, built eight evil robots for the sole purpose of destroying civilization. In Mega Man 3, Dr. Light helps Dr. Wily build an enormous robot to protect civilization, but doesn’t bat an eye when Wily asks for the keys and offers to go get it washed.

There’s seeing the best in people, and then there’s seeing nothing at all. Dr. Light is a boob.

The truly unimpeachable things that Mega Man 3 brought to the table are the two new characters, and we can learn a lot about the value of strong characterization from both of them.

Prior to Mega Man 3, there was a simple triumvirate. Dr. Light (appropriately mistranslated in this game as Dr. Right) is the good scientist, Dr. Wily (irrelevantly mistranslated in this game as Dr. Wiley) is the bad scientist, and Mega Man is the player’s avatar, advancing the cause of one and beating back the cause of the other.

It’s easy, and a pretty common video-game setup: there are forces of good and forces of evil, and you’re the middleman. (Middle Man 3)

This game adds the first wrinkles to that formula with two new, important characters: Rush and Proto Man.

Rush is essentially just a charming face slapped on Mega Man’s utilities…but it’s a change that matters. The simple fact that these gadgets now resemble a dog makes them feel more important, and more significant to our hero. They’re not stepstools this time; they’re a friend.

While the Magnet Beam was something like a panicked afterthought in the first game, Mega Man 2 made its Items feel natural and better designed for the gameplay. Mega Man 3 goes a remarkable step forward by giving them personality. And the best part is that it’s entirely implicit.

Does Rush Coil function any differently than a springboard would have? Of course not. But by giving it a proper name (as far removed from Item-4 as it’s possible to get), we give Rush a sense of individuality. By further making Rush a dog, we tap effortlessly into the implied relationship between a little boy and his beloved pet. (Mega Man’s youthful appearance in the sprite art becomes an immediate benefit at this point.) And by adding the slightest flourishes — such as having Rush’s tail wag briefly when you select him from the menu — we believe in Rush.

The Magnet Beam was a thing. Item-2 was a thing. Rush is a dog. Mega Man 3 figured out how to make players genuinely care about a utility decades before Portal faced the same question.

The fact that we actually see Rush transform in three ways in this game (Rush Coil, Rush Jet, and Rush Marine) future-proofs him as well; if the then-hypothetical Mega Man 4 didn’t require any of those things, Rush could simply transform into something else. Like a real dog, Rush wouldn’t be a disposable fancy; he was now part of Mega Man’s family.

And speaking of family…

Proto Man. Boy. Is there a cooler character from the 8-bit era? Proto Man with his cape and permanent shades probably holds the title pretty securely.

There’s an air of mystery about Proto Man that runs through the game and makes his story — whatever his story may be — far more compelling than any kind of idiocy Dr. Light is engaging in with Dr. Wily. He turns up in four of the main stages, each time accompanied by his distinctive whistle. (Which you can hear right now, I’m certain.)

I remember each of these appearances being thrillingly tantalizing to my young self. I remember arguing with friends about them. Who was this guy? Was he a bad guy? Was he helping us? Was he testing us?

It was strange. In three of his appearances, Proto Man does actually attack Mega Man…but he always seems to be holding back. He doesn’t do much. He hops around and fires, but most of the common enemies are better at getting in hits than Proto Man is.

But Proto Man keeps appearing. He feels meaningful in a way that other recurring enemies don’t. Those, after all, are destroyed when you defeat them. Proto Man, instead, teleports away and clears a path forward for you. There’s something deliberate behind his behavior. Other enemies are programmed to defeat Mega Man, and so they fight to the mechanical equivalent of death. Proto Man, clearly, has something else in mind.

Most intriguing is his appearance in Gemini Man’s stage. There he doesn’t fight you. He could — and he might be considering it — but he doesn’t. He just…stares. He watches you. He stands motionless. Sizing you up? Questioning you? Respecting you as an equal?

We’ll never know, because he opens the path forward and leaves without a word. Without firing a shot. Without anything but his somber whistle.

…and that’s it. There’s a fight with him after the Doc Robot stages (in which he’s referred to as Break Man…perhaps another mistranslation), and then he saves your life when Wily’s castle crumbles at the very end. That’s all we really know.

Until we finish the game and watch a scene marked EPILOGUE.

We see identification cards for each of the robots Dr. Light built in Mega Man. They run backward. Elec Man. Fire Man. Bomb Man. Ice Man. Guts Man. Cut Man. Then the good guys we already know. There’s Roll, Mega Man’s sister. And Mega Man himself.

And, finally, the mysterious Proto Man, revealed in a note as being “brother of Megaman.”

It’s the closest thing to a true twist ending any Mega Man game has had, and it’s a good one. It forces us to reconsider the events of the game, yet doesn’t definitively answer any questions.

Was Proto Man fighting Mega Man to make sure he was prepared for what’s to come? Possibly, as he removes barricades in four stages that Mega Man would not be able to remove on his own. Or was he seeking some kind of revenge? This is also possible, as Proto Man will gladly enough kill Mega Man should the fights go that way. Which may be telling; Proto Man won’t fight to his own death, but he’ll sure as hell kill his brother.

He eventually saves Mega Man from Wily’s crumbling castle, yes, but does that mean all is forgiven? Does that even mean he likes his brother? Does he feel obligated to save him? Hell, does he regret saving him?

The answers are never quite revealed, no matter how long Proto Man has remained a series staple. And I like that. I like that we never truly know the depth of his allegiance. And I like that his story is almost entirely implicit, hinging on a single, loaded line of text at the end of the game. A sibling rivalry. Father issues. Conflicted loyalties. All suggested, but never divulged.

His Japanese name — Blues — speaks even further to his sad demeanor, and is much more evocative than his Western name, which is just a clue that he came first.

Proto Man is by far the richest of Mega Man’s characters, if only because he’s the only one who can’t be fit into a box. Dr. Cossack in the next game similarly straddles the line between good and evil, but once his motivation is revealed it’s impossible to see him as anything except firmly on the side of good.

Proto Man…well, we still don’t know about Proto Man. He was never used again as effectively as he was in this game, but that’s okay. Because…well…how do you top that?

But Mega Man 3 isn’t about Proto Man. As much as we can debate the merits of individual games, or weapons, or items, or characters, or plots, the entire Mega Man series is really about one thing: boss battles.

That’s something I never quite realized as a kid. Sure, I liked certain Robot Masters more than others, but I was never quite sure why. I tended to be drawn to the explosion-based Robot Masters, as you can probably tell, even though I hated using their weapons. I kept coming back to Bubble Man often enough that he was the first one I learned to outwit. I couldn’t stand fighting Gemini Man, but he was clearly so cool that I couldn’t dislike him.

The Robot Masters — by and large Mega Man’s bosses — were distinct. They had personality, even if it was entirely implied by their music, their stages, their arsenal, their speed, their agility, their aggressiveness.

Metal Man wouldn’t make a move until you did, for instance…unless you took too long, in which case he’d lash out in boredom. Guts Man would stun you by stomping the ground and use that opportunity to close in, fencing you into a corner. Heat Man pelted you with a volley of fire the moment the fight started, not letting you so much as blink before he’s on the offense.

Other Robot Masters, though, such as Magnet Man and Snake Man in this game, just barrel from one side of the screen to the other, working through their routines as though you’re not even there, secure in the knowledge that they’ll successfully bulldoze you before you learn to fight back.

As a kid, I never realized the distinction in fighting style. It’s hard to realize it when you’re struggling just to survive. I’d run at an enemy, guns blazing. Hopefully the enemy died before I did. When possible I’d dodge return fire, but I was both panicked and unskilled enough that this wasn’t reliable. I’d fire wildly and hope for the best. Once I got a special weapon, I’d find whatever Robot Master I could and pelt them blindly with that instead.

As an adult, it’s different. I don’t use special weapons often — aside from the capsule room refights and some of the more particularly irritating bosses — because I realize now that these are a series of duels. It’s not about showering the room with projectiles; it’s about watching, reacting, learning, responding. It’s about identifying and anticipating patterns. It’s about the graceful exchange of attacks and retreats.

And there really is something beautiful about Mega Man’s better boss fights. When you learn how to fight a Robot Master — not beat, but truly match wits with — it becomes a thing of elegance. Of beauty. When you learn how to manipulate a Robot Master in such a way that they sacrifice their upper hand…when you trick them into leaping into what would have been a stray shot…when you stun them in place…when you behave in such a way that they no longer how to respond…

It’s wonderful.

It’s truly, deeply wonderful. Because it requires you to respect them as adversaries. It requires you to learn to think as they do. It requires you to figure them out, and to identify hidden chinks in their durable armor. They stop being a boss, and become instead a satisfying rival.

What’s more, their ultimate predictability and exploitability make sense within the games’ universe: these are robots. They are programmed. They behave in certain ways. Some of them have better AI than others, but they’re all defined by a sequence of code. That’s because they’re video game enemies, yes, but it’s also because they’re robots built and programmed by scientists within the game. When you outwit a Robot Master, you’re also outwitting his designer. You’re playing a game of violent chess.

Bomb Man, for instance, is programmed to flee you, which is only something you’d discover if you keep trying to run right into him. Keep the distance between the two of you narrow enough and he’ll keep hopping around, helplessly open to your shots. The fact that this hinges upon counterintuitive behavior (contact damage hurts you, and you have a long-range weapon) helps it to function as a quiet puzzle in the background of the fight…one you may not even realize is there to be solved.

And he’s not the only one. Crash Man is programmed to jump and fire whenever you shoot, which means if you’re already in the air when you do so he can leap into your projectile and miss you with his. Heat Man will go into a strictly defensive mode whenever he is hit, which means you can prevent him from attacking at all (barring his initial volley) if you’re quick enough on the trigger. If you hit Elec Man with a Buster shot every time he raises his arms, he’ll never attack you. All of these are puzzles that encourage players to experiment and reward careful attention.

(Short digression: this illustrates another reason I don’t particularly enjoy the Dr. Wily stages. While those bosses tend to be bigger and more technically impressive, there’s little grace to them. They’re nearly all just big, powerful bullies. Their battles aren’t balletic; they’re a gradual chipping away at walls.)

Mega Man 3‘s bosses overall don’t feel as satisfying to me as many of the earlier (and later) Robot Masters. They’re not terrible, exactly…they just feel less…designed. I don’t get the same satisfying sense of unraveling behavioral code here that I get from the other games.

Gemini Man is a welcome and glorious exception to the rule, as his fight is actually an interesting one. Not only does it consist of two bosses, but it has two phases, really pushing the Gemini angle in exactly the right way. (The stage has nothing to do with the theme, so the boss fight might as well go nuts with it.)

In the first phase, Gemini Men are programmed to circle the room and collide with you, but they also stop and return fire whenever you shoot at them. This either means that you need to fire when they’re both in the air and can’t attack or that you need to be already leaping their projectile before they shoot it. Then, in the second phase, there’s only one Gemini Man, and this one jumps when you shoot at him. That’s both important to know in order to actually hit him, and your best method of avoiding him as he paces around: shoot and then quickly slide underneath.

It’s a great boss fight, but it’s almost the only one. Snake Man and Magnet Man both go back and forth across the screen, firing at standard intervals. Spark Man does the same, firing at non-standard intervals. Hard Man fires, jumps, fires, jumps. Needle Man and Shadow Man just go haywire, jumping and firing at rates too quick for any reasonable player to comprehend. Top Man is an idiot.

So many great Robot Master concepts, but so little thought went into their execution. They don’t feel reactive in the way that Gemini Man and other great Robot Masters do. Rather, it feels like you have no impact at all, and they’d be going through the same routines, unchanged, even if you never showed up at their doors. That’s simply not satisfying.

That’s not the only problem with the boss fights, though: there’s also lag.

Mega Man 3 lags constantly, for no clear reason. Fights with Spark Man, Gemini Man, and Snake Man all slow the game to a crawl…and there’s nothing else happening. The least Mega Man 3 should be able to do is process its showcase duels without falling apart, but it can’t. It even struggles with minibosses, such as the cats in Top Man’s stage. It’s one thing if the player allows too many enemies to follow him into a taxing area, but in these cases it doesn’t take more than a boss showing up for the game to sputter and choke.

And we’ve already spoken about the Gemini Laser; just using it seems to cripple the game, which indicates that the lag is a coding issue. Mega Man 3 is full of things that just don’t work properly.

Not to mention the fact that the aesthetics of the Robot Master levels aren’t as naturally themed as they previously were. Sure, Snake Man makes up a lot of the deficit, as he’s a snake who shoots smaller snakes that crawl around a room made of snakes in a level made of other snakes, but Hard Man is just…in a gorge. Top Man is in some kind of plant nursery, I guess. And Needle Man is an angry plum on a pirate ship? I have no idea, and the lack of care doesn’t end there.

There’s the off-center hitboxes, particularly Shadow Man’s and Gemini Man’s. There are the Junk Golem enemies that continue to attack after they’re dead. There are the cloud platforms in Snake Man’s stage that will glitch you into a bottomless pit. And the best thing I can say about the Wily stages is that the Yellow Devil’s new breasts are incredible.

Then there’s the Doc Robot stages…remixed versions of four earlier stages with new hazards and layouts, featuring spiritual rematches with Robot Masters from Mega Man 2. It’s a great concept that, to put it honestly, is absolutely terrible in execution.

The stages don’t feel fair or interesting, functioning more as tedious gauntlets with oddly-chosen checkpoints than actual tests of anything we’ve learned as players. The fact that it’s possible to get stuck with no way to progress or die if you run out of energy for utilities, requiring a full reset of the console, makes me suspicious of just how much these stages were even playtested.

Mega Man 3 just feels a bit…careless.

It has great ideas. It really does.

And I want to love it.

I want to love Mega Man 3.

I want to play it and love it and shout from the rooftops about how great it is.

But I can’t.

Because as much as it introduced, it also regressed to feeling raw and experimental rather than tight and rewarding.

It gave us great characters and more great music.

But its Robot Masters don’t behave in interesting ways. Its weapons aren’t worth using. Its stages range from uninspired to careless. It’s glitchy. It’s unfair. It’s mindlessly punishing and yet too easy, providing few examples of genuinely fair challenges but also throwing so many extra lives and E-tanks at you that it feels impossible to lose. (I ended my game with 20 and 9 respectively when I replayed it for this review, and I was not playing carefully at all.)

I want to love Mega Man 3.

I do.

But maybe it tried to do a bit too much. Just like Mega Man.

And, as with Mega Man, it took the next game to show us how to do it right.

Best Robot Master: Gemini Man
Best Stage: Gemini Man
Best Weapon: Shadow Blade
Best Theme: Gemini Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 3 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)

Better Call Saul is a great show, and “Witness” assuaged my quiet worry that it soon wouldn’t be.

This was among the most effective hours of television I think I’ve ever seen, maybe because of how effortlessly it pivots at about its midpoint from being one of the funniest episodes to being one of the most painful.

Most great television episodes do something very well. “Witness,” though, does two quite different things very well. It almost feels as though it’s two separate half hours that just happened to air back to back, which in this very specific case I mean as an enormous compliment.

“Witness” isn’t aimless or confused; “Witness” is artful and layered. It isolates the main components of its delicate comedy-drama balance, which allows each half to breathe, to function, to hit us hardest.

I loved this episode.

So why was I afraid I wouldn’t?

Well, as you know if you’ve been reading these reviews, I’m a day or so behind on new episodes. I don’t have cable, so I buy the seasons through iTunes. I don’t get to watch a new Better Call Saul until everyone else has already seen it.

Potentially this could end in me getting pretty majorly spoiled. I don’t mind spoilers, per se, and I think the panic and offense they engender is more or less totally unfounded, but I still like to go into things knowing as little as possible ahead of time.

So, what do I do? I tell my readers — and my friends — that I’m behind. I ask them politely not to spoil anything for me. And because I have excellent readers and friends, they don’t spoil anything for me. I get to experience things fresh. I don’t even know ahead of time if an episode is any good, and I appreciate that. I asked for a small gesture of respect, and everyone’s given it to me.

…except for AMC.

That frustrates and worries me. I’ll get to the worry bit in a moment, but I’m sure you can guess why it’s frustrating.

I don’t like to know what’s coming next. I don’t think it ruins the experience, but it does change it. Watching a show with only your own guesses as to what’s coming is a different experience from watching it knowing what’s coming, and anticipating it.

Wouldn’t it have been better, in a word, if Gus Fring’s reappearance had been kept mum? Wouldn’t the slow reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign been more thrilling? Wouldn’t the artful lack of focus on the man as he swept the floor behind Jimmy felt more purposeful?

I ask not to be spoiled because I want to enjoy the show more, but the network airing the show and the people making the show can’t shut up about it. Fring is coming back. Fring will return in season three. Fring will be back early in the season. Don’t forget; tonight is the night Fring returns. Unscramble the first letters of season two’s titles and they spell BEND OVER HERE FRING COMES AGAIN.

Hitchcock famously wouldn’t allow late seating when Psycho was in theaters, and he personally asked audiences not to share plot details with those who hadn’t seen it. If the Better Call Saul marketing team were in charge of that film, the trailers would have provided a precise timestamp, letting you know exactly when you’d need to show up to see Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Two immediate points of comparison, I think, prove the rule. The first would be the legitimate surprise appearance of Tuco at the end of this show’s very first episode. I was a night behind then, as well, and nobody spoiled it. When he stuck a gun in Jimmy’s face, I felt the shock. Had I known he was coming I could have still enjoyed it, but that initial rush would have been replaced with something less…thrilling.

Then there’s this episode’s other surprise emissary* from Breaking Bad: Francesca. No promotional materials spoiled her return that I saw, and so, ironically, her appearance had infinitely more weight than the (clearly more important) arrival of Gus Fring.

I have to admit, I never expected to be so happy to see Francesca again. Not that I disliked her in Breaking Bad at all; I think she just didn’t stand out as a singular character there. Watching her get her feet wet — and develop the sad loyalty to Jimmy that will keep her by his side through a name change and the ultimate dissolution of his career — makes me very excited to have her back. There’s a journey there that I didn’t expect I’d ever care to see, and now my mind is reeling with possibilities.

Also, at this point, can Huell and Kuby be far behind? Not that I’m in a rush to get anywhere (Better Call Saul‘s glacial pace is genuinely its greatest asset) but I’ll be very happy to see them again.

Now let me frustrate you by framing much of what I just celebrated as a concern.

“Witness” — prior to air — worried me because I don’t want Better Call Saul to become Breaking Bad. Having Tuco or Krazy-8 pop up is fine. Hell, bring in more characters whenever there’s a natural and compelling reason for them to be there. I don’t even care if folks pop up just for the novelty of it, as the Cousins seemed to last season.

But by folding these characters into the proceedings — by making them important to this show, to what happens, to the stories being told — we blur the lines between Better Call Saul and its predecessor. And that’s not fair to Better Call Saul.

We had Saul and Mike, of course. Those two, from episode one, were to be our parallel leads. And that’s okay. Because otherwise, the important characters were all new. Kim. Chuck. Howard. Nacho. Any number of new clients, flames, and foils. Better Call Saul occupied the same universe, but charted different territory. It was its own experience, and it could toss a saucy wink at its parent series whenever it damned well pleased; Better Call Saul would still live or die on its own merits.

…until it decides that, no, it won’t.

If it decides to make Hector a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it decides to make Gus a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it brings back Ted and Hank and Uncle Nazi, it’s a little more Breaking Bad.

And Better Call Saul deserves so much more than that. It deserves independent appraisal. Over the course of two seasons and change it’s earned independent appraisal. Bob Odenkirk is doing incredible work as Jimmy McGill, and it’s work that is entirely distinct from his work as Saul Goodman. It’s a different character. It’s a unique performance. It’s nuanced and impressive in a way that Saul Goodman — as great as he was — was not.

Rhea Seehorn is, on a weekly basis, the best thing on television. Michael McKean is an unexpectedly impressive and heartbreaking dramatic presence. Dave Porter, the composer of both shows, regularly makes the most of Better Call Saul‘s long, wordless stretches, filling his sonic canvas with compositions that in themselves tell the story, hand over fist outdoing his already great work on Breaking Bad.

In short, Better Call Saul is something wonderful…and it’s painful to see it seemingly want to become something else…something that’s already been and gone…something we’ve already seen. I don’t want the marketing to be all about Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos, because those things don’t belong to Better Call Saul. Those belong to Breaking Bad. And, frankly, I’d rather spend time here.

I worried about how much Gus dominated discussions about the show, because I don’t want to lose Jimmy to Saul. Not yet. Not when we’re still telling what I truly believe is an important story about these characters. Do we really need to carve out more of its runtime for those whose stories we already know?

That might also be why the return of Francesca doesn’t worry me. Or why the hypothetical return of Huell and Kuby doesn’t worry me. Those aren’t stories we know. We met the characters, but never got more than a rough sense of who they were. There’s a lot to learn.

How much more is there to learn about Gus?

“Witness” doesn’t answer that. At least not directly. But it does reassure us, and it does so by its sheer quality. Better Call Saul can still be great, can still be unique, can still be independently brilliant…even if it is saddled more and more by the weight of the legendary show that came before.

I’m still not convinced we needed Gus back. But I think I am convinced that Better Call Saul is going to retain its identity, and not become The Young Chicken Man Chronicles.

Anyway, some smaller thoughts on the episode itself, rather than what it does or doesn’t suggest for the future of the series as a whole.

I had no idea last week what Chuck’s plan was, but a friend of mine guessed it beat for beat. Great job, Keith! I’m an idiot!

I honestly thought that Ernesto hearing the tape was accidental, but my friend saw it as deliberate from the start. And, sure enough, he also predicted that the plan was to catch Jimmy breaking and entering to get it back. I have to admit, I’m impressed at how well Better Call Saul laid those tracks when I wasn’t looking; Chuck already knew Ernesto was loyal to Jimmy, and all he really had to do was get the boy worried. The rest of the plan unfolded naturally from there, and that was a pretty beautiful thing.

And I loved Kim demanding money from Jimmy so that she’d be his lawyer and everything they discuss would be confidential. That’s a trick Saul later pulls on Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad. (Funnily enough, in the episode “Better Call Saul,” if I remember correctly.) It’s interesting to see something Jimmy learned from a true friend who cares for him and his safety eventually becomes a tool in his arsenal of shysterism.

Mike’s story doesn’t go far this time, but the fact that he teams up with Jimmy just serves as a reminder of how much we benefit as viewers when these two actually share screentime. Jimmy’s silent — and clumsy — surveillance inside the restaurant was a setpiece of perfect comic tension. Ditto Mike kicking him out of the car when an amped-up Jimmy wants to keep playing spy.

Hell, even the initial suggestion that Mike and Jimmy might work together led to a huge laugh. (“This one really don’t want to talk about Cracker Barrel.”)

Better Call Saul has life in it. A real life. A life worth exploring.

And I hope, deeply, that it does a better job of escaping the shadow of its celebrated older brother than Jimmy does.

—–
* Okay, we saw Victor as well, and that was cool, but since we knew Gus was coming, that didn’t feel as surprising. Once we know Dorothy is skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, is anyone surprised that Toto shows up, too?

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