2017 – 2022
Created by: Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams
Starring: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Jason Butler Harner, Julia Garner
2015 – 2022
Created by: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Shea Reehorn, Jonathon Banks, Michael McKean
As of this week, Ozark once again reigned as the most watched show on any streamer, a feat that it accomplished in both its third and fourth seasons. Better Call Saul is both a prequel and a spinoff to Breaking Bad, a program universally regarded as one of the best TV shows of all time. What’s more, Better Call Saul reached 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with its most recent season and TV writers consider it the prime example of how to make a prequel.
Both have been sitting in my Netflix “my list” section for years now, both have recently premiered their final episodes, and both have talented cast and crew that I hold in high esteem—but none of these mattered to me. My mom was out of shows again, but wanted to try one that I’d never seen. Her specific request made me pull the trigger.
Ozark’s main character is Martin Byrde, a man who’s just found out that his wife is cheating on him. Even worse, his business partner, Bruce, is cheating him. Marty finds out about the second betrayal at the same time his boss, Del, does. This causes Del to order his men to kill Bruce and haul away the corpse. While one could rightly say that Del overreacted, Del could counter with “I’m the treasurer of the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. Marty and Bruce laundered money for me, but Bruce stole $8 million.” Marty offers to liquidate his company and relocate to the Lake of the Ozarks in order to find new avenues for Del’s funds. Del gives Marty until the end of the summer, or the entire Byrde family is dead. Can Marty and his complicit wife make the deadline? Or will the local crime outfits drown them first?
Better Call Saul centers around Jimmy McGill, a “colorful” lawyer trying his best in Albuquerque to make ends meet as a public defender. He’d be a lot more successful if he didn’t have to worry about his brother, Chuck, a brilliant attorney afflicted by an “allergy” to electricity. Then again, Chuck saved Jimmy from a life of jail visits for petty crime. Semi-reformed, but broke, Jimmy tries to frame an accident so that local, corrupt politicians will hire him as legal representation. Things go sideways when his associates frame the wrong car—one belonging to a drug-dealer’s grandmother. Jimmy won’t be able to talk his way out of this one, but that’s not gonna stop him from trying.
Yes, and this post was supposed to be just about Ozark, but my mom quit six episodes in because it was “too dark and disgusting.” To a degree, I felt the same way—odd because my mom and I watched John Wick together. I decided to compare Ozark to the next crime show on my Netflix queue, Better Call Saul, to see if Ozark truly was that degenerate, or if I was getting squeamish.
It was Ozark. Thank God because I love crime shows where bad people kill worse people. Without my mother to help, though, watching the rest of Ozark became a drawn-out chore. Meanwhile, I’m already on season three of Better Call Saul. To be fair, I’m glad I did finish the first season of Ozark, because the show skyrocketed in quality in episode eight; I’ve also heard that seasons two and three are top-shelf quality. Saul, however, started out on the right foot and avoided the pitfalls that so many ill-conceived prequels and spinoffs fall into. Below are five areas where Ozark needed time to find its footing while Better Call Saul was sprinting ahead.
Ozark commits a grave, basic error with its first episode—it forgets to make us care about Marty Byrde. While TV and movies are under no obligation to give us “likable” characters, audiences need to either understand a character’s motivation or see a protagonist do something kind near the beginning of the first episode. Otherwise, viewers won’t engage.
My mom posed this question to me best: “Why are we rooting for Marty Byrde to get away with things? If he pulls it off, we’re happy the cartel got its money laundered…” Yes, he’s doing it to protect his family, but why was he working for the cartel in the first place? To reiterate, we do find out in episode eight, but I just felt sorry for his kids until then. That’s not enough reason to keep watching.
Meanwhile, Better Call Saul addresses this problem immediately. Jimmy McGill is a huckster through and through; he tries to do right yet constantly must fight against his grifter instincts. In the show’s first sequence, we see him defending three idiots who did something indefensible. They’re not worth it, but someone needs to be a public defender. A few scenes later, we see Jimmy complaining about this situation to his brother while taking care of him. Jimmy proceeds to do grimy, unethical things, but we’re invested in his struggle to become a better person because of his demonstrated charity.
Ozark takes place in southern Missouri, but, while there are lake culture moments, the residents all have a sameness to them that smacks of better Southern crime worlds. Here, everyone is corrupt, desperate, or both. Save for one rich jerk who shows up to a party, seduces an underage girl, then leaves, not a single character—from main to extra—ever has a defining character trait besides being disadvantaged or taking advantage of someone else.
Better Call Saul has at least a dozen major supporting characters, all of whom stand out. Chuck, Jimmy’s sanctimonious and always “technically” correct brother, is wildly different from the Kettlemans, spurious government employees who double down on their innocence while literally holding $1.5 million is embezzled funds. While the show has an overall perspective, the characters don’t all neatly fit into one or two boxes.
Adding to the monotony of Ozark is the color correction on the video, giving every shot of the show an underexposed, mucus soaked layer. From Chicago to south Missouri, every place has the same feel. On its own, the sickly hues could’ve forwarded a theme of feeling trapped, no matter the environment, but the one-size-fits-all character dimensions hint more at dull writing or directing.
Better Call Saul, on the other hand, has a base color palette (oppressive Southwestern sunshine), but isn’t afraid to deviate. When Jimmy visits his brother, the house is dark and blue. When Jimmy visits his brother’s law firm, the colors are a smarmy professional indigo/gray. When Jimmy visits a parking garage to commiserate with a colleague, there are sharp, noir shadows cutting and framing their faces. The show corrals these aesthetics yet leaves room for variety.
Depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and profanity are often moderated by government rating systems because they draw eyeballs; hopefully, adults are mature enough to know that, while children generally don’t. Both Ozark and Better Call Saul contain all four of these rating intensifyers to varying degrees, but Ozark fails to use these moments to further its characters or themes. Ozark’s sole purpose for including its dark violence and disheartening sex scenes is to say, “Look how awful these people are! Humans are the worst.”
Better Call Saul, conversely, gets three great interactions from one creative expletive hurled at a character. Likewise, the most violent scene in season one supercharges Jimmy’s self-confidence as he negotiates with an enraged tweaker. I’m certainly not opposed to featuring violence and sex in media—hell, one of the best plotlines of Game of Thrones involved Tyrion and Shae, a narrative thread filled with sexual trysts and violent betrayals—but Ozark seems to wallow in its lurid nature instead of leveraging it for storytelling.
My face didn’t move in an upwards direction watching Ozark until a character meets her satisfying end 50 minutes into episode seven. In Better Call Saul, we see Jimmy practicing a closing defense for an indefensible client—but the camera has a urinal cake in the foreground. Gross, yes, but I couldn’t help smiling.
Humor in antihero-led television doesn’t need to be frequent, but it is a powerful tool that can offer relief to the oppressive weight of the proceedings. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the blood and guts go down. Better Call Saul features compelling drama and genuine, razor-wire tension, but resets the audience’s palette with a joke or quirky character moment. Ozark, for the first two-thirds of the first season, feels mired in its sludgy sameness. Forget a spoonful, Ozark asks you to swallow a whole bottle of medicine without any sugar to help.
Ozark gets immensely better in episode eight. I found myself checking the time less even though the episodes were longer. They dispatch with their extraneous characters, give the audience reasons to engage with the Byrde family, and add welcome splashes of humor. While Ozark begrudgingly earned my trust, however, Better Call Saul had it immediately and hasn’t let me down yet. That’s saying something given its main character.
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