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"Better Call Saul" premiered on Sunday with reviews noting that it was either better than or not nearly as good as "Breaking Bad." It's a bit too soon to say either of those things. But what we can clearly pull from the pilot is the ickiness of that Cinnabon intro. We see Saul living out his self-fulfilled prophecy of working behind the counter of the franchise. The Ink Spots' "Address Unknown" plays across a black-and-white montage steeped in a sense of ignobility layered on as thick as the calorie-dense frosting. It's as if the mere thought of a food service job might make Vince Gilligan fall to his knees and scream, "Oh, the humanity!"
The heavy-handed tragic tone associated with service work here is especially disturbing when we consider what Saul (then Jimmy) has "fallen" from. In this same episode, predating the mall job, he defends three teenagers who pulled the head off a corpse and "stuck it in the throat hole." Saul calls his clients "knuckleheads" who had a "lapse in judgement." In what value system is Service Worker ranked lower than Corpse Defiler Defendant? This one, apparently. You might argue that the opener's "sticky Purgatory" feel (as the A.V. Club described it) comes from the fear and burden of hiding rather than service work itself. That’s plausible, but not a good enough defense when you look at the way the working class is regarded across television en masse.
That reality is that middle-class life is now next to invisible. And when the working class does appear it's in the realm of sitcoms, where economic issues are typically glossed over as running gags (see: Monica Geller's apartment, Carrie Bradshaw's closet full of Manolos). When the middle-class milieu is treated with respect (as it was with "Roseanne" and is on "The Middle"), the inherent motive is still to make people laugh. And even shows like that have seen a huge drop-off. The likes of "The Honeymooners" or "All In The Family" and later "Married With Children" and "Roseanne" were part of the mainstream, while shows like "The Middle" or "Raising Hope" are fledgling programs, limping by with a fraction of the viewership.
It's worth distinguishing these examples from grey area ones like "The Office" (or even "Parks And Rec" in earlier seasons). Pam probably wasn't making much more as a Scranton secretary than Saul is as a Cinnabon employee, though that counts as white-collar labor and does not focus on home life or the idea of "getting by," which was so crucial to the programming of earlier generations. Probably the only running working-class-family show that hits on financial instability with any poignancy is “Shameless." In the realm of the TV drama, the working class either doesn’t exist or, as in “Saul,” are the worst case scenario.
“The few TV dramas that do touch on issues of class are all too often about the status anxiety of middle-class white men,” HuffPost TV Critic Maureen Ryan wrote in an email. “Um, hello? They are starting out with more privileges in than many other folks.” That’s what makes this so problematic. This flawed presentation of the working class is embedded in entitlement. It projects this idea that these jobs are a joke, that the White Men of prestige television deserve better simply by virtue of being white / men.
Of course, representation is important. But there’s a more sinister force at play than your garden variety symbolic annihilation. Making the working class invisible is a more active mode of devaluation, because the social hierarchy is an automatic reality for every character on television. And treating service work as way for Saul Goodman to pay for his sins is a step further than that. It’s downright irresponsible. In the current TV landscape of anti-heroes scrambling for a tighter hold on the privileges of patriarchy, surely there is a greater punishment than rolling dough at the mall.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca