Better Call Saul is the best designed show on television. Period.
And designers should take note if they haven’t already. Vince Gilligan’s creation, the prequel to Breaking Bad, the monumental TV breakthrough series on AMC Network, has been from the start a visual design chrysalis that never stops evolving, never stops growing. Now in its fourth season, the season premiere aired just this past Monday.
Gilligan has hired two really good cinematographers to map out his vision of the quirky yet enthralling drama posed in New Mexico’s law-cum-drug underworld atmosphere. And it works so well. Just watching the story unfold through their eyes is what the treat is all about. You can’t help but surrender to their seeing it.
In order to appreciate the cues, look at the visuals above. These are just four examples of the kind of designed shots we see throughout the show. Upper left, silhouettes against a colorful descriptive backdrop. Upper right, close-ups of many things (here a sink drain), to exemplify the texture and grit of the scene involved, bringing you right into it. Lower left, close/far shots, close-cropped, bringing motion and speed, accelerating tension. And lower right, cropping to the offset vision, the offbeat angle.
Arthur Albert’s work behind the camera dates back to The Wonder Years and ER. He’s done well, also directing episodes in those two series as well as many other TV shows and movies. He’s been succeeded at Better Call Saul by Marshall Adams, whose credits hail back to Kojak and Monk. Both cinematographers bring much to the presentation. Both worked on Breaking Bad.
And the scenes above are not just transitional frames from one scene to another. Many more such as these are used in place of scenes that have dialog. So much of Better Call Saul is atmosphere, making critical use of foreboding; visuals that set the tone for tension, leading to action-filled climaxes or even more tension-building toward anticipation of what might come next.
The story is about Jimmy McGill (played wonderfully by Bob Odenkirk), a con artist whose brother is a prominent Albuquerque attorney. Jimmy has fudged his way all through law school and beyond, just to be like his brother Chuck, whom he admires. But as conniving as Jimmy is, his heart is in the right spot, most of the time. The other times, Jimmy doesn’t care so much about how he gets his money. The series is based on the half-dozen or so years before Breaking Bad happens.
There is humor in the series, no question. Jimmy is a fumbling player, quarterbacking his own mistakes, conniving to cover those and sometimes creating worse circumstances.
And in case you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Breaking Bad, it’s about this: a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s future (from IMDB). And as you might guess from that synopsis, what could possibly go wrong? Everything. That high school chem teacher’s brother-in-law works for the DEA, just to whet your appetite. And of course, the chem teacher’s meth distribution bumps right up against the drug kingpins’ already entrenched in the area.
Better Call Saul picks up the thread of that show as a prequel. Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, at first a television commercial guy. But then Goodman gets into teaching the chem teacher in Breaking Bad how to launder his money. What else can go wrong?
Designing motion pictures is not difficult. Although it definitely takes a team effort to scribe images like the above, the director’s eye and the cinematographer’s skill at cropping and managing lighting and color are inseparable. Gilligan is a genius. He’s the planner, and Adams (now) is the painter.
And it’s easy to watch the show—it’s free on AMC.