America has always loved the underdog. After all, the founding of our country was based on a David-and-Goliath struggle against a seemingly indomitable monarchy. The promise of America is that anyone can be successful if they are innovative and work hard.
But can we be OK with someone not succeeding, or succeeding in unconventional ways? This is a question raised by the AMC series "Better Call Saul." Saul (James Morgan McGill) is a mischievous, underhanded and conniving man who will do almost anything for money. And yet we love him because he is the underdog who attempts to overcome the odds through passion and persistence.
But Saul is no ordinary rags-to-riches underdog who overcomes difficult circumstances to achieve wondrous glory but rather one who has to perpetually scratch and claw for any taste of success. And while we love the fantasy of the untouchable fairy tale hero, we love Saul perhaps because he is a lot more like us than we'd care to admit.
"Better Call Saul" is a prequel to "Breaking Bad," and so we already know that Saul does not rise to triumphant heights; rather he is still plotting and scheming to stay alive and get ahead. And the series premiere begins where we might imagine: Saul struggling to get business, and coming up with ways of bending the law such as plotting personal injury scams with young skateboarders. We realize that Saul is no "diamond in the rough" but rather just rough. But we can connect to Saul because many of us feel as though our lives will be an ongoing struggle with intermittent periods of success and failure.
In fact, as a society we are becoming more comfortable with our heroes being flawed people. Consider for a moment that our last three presidents have been able to publicly admit to drug use, and candidate Jeb Bush has already let us know he smoked pot. President Obama will talk openly about the struggles of work-family balance even for a powerful political family.
We love larger-than-life heroes precisely because they are unattainable ideals - fantasies. But maybe we are ready for our heroes to be more like real people; complex characters with complicated and contradictory motives and behaviors that more mirror our actual struggles. More, these may be the people who truly inspire us because they more accurately represent us.
While many still embrace the American Dream, it appears that many of us do not necessarily connect to this ideal. In fact, half of Americans no longer report believing in the "American Dream"; 60% of "millenials" do not. The dream of retirement also seems less attainable; more and more people are unprepared for retirement and will have to work well beyond what they've expected. So for many of us, rather than anticipating a story where we ride off into the sunset, we anticipate working hard day after day to continue making a living.
And perhaps relatedly, alongside the more prototypical "hero," popular culture has witnessed the rise of the anti-hero who has similar day-to-day struggles. Fictional characters like Walter White of Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano of "The Sopranos" and Dexter Morgan of "Dexter" present complex mixtures of unlimited power (e.g., crime boss, preternatural serial killer) with very real and often unresolved problems (e.g. managing family commitments). More, many of these shows are beginning to move away from "clean" endings. While the ultimate death of Walter White satisfied our need for closure and final judgment, The Sopranos and Dexter ended simply with images of the protagonist. Neither character got off free, nor was incarcerated or killed. They just kept going.
So let's say hi to an old friend and welcome to our new hero Saul, in all of his flawed, confused and unresolved glory.
Because whether we like it or not, there's a little Saul in all of us.
And maybe that's OK.