“Better Call Saul” is one of the best shows on TV. It’s as entertaining as it is inventive. It feels distinct even in the so-called “Golden Age of TV.” When I first heard that Vince Gilligan and the crew were making a “Breaking Bad” spinoff centered around a unique but goofy side character, I admit I was skeptical, but “Better Call Saul” has turned out to be a remarkable show. As Season 6 is underway, it’s worth it to discuss why it’s such a unique show and examine the specific aspects that set it apart from most series on television.
The following is free of *central* plot spoilers
I want to start with a quick example of the visual storytelling that makes many love “Better Call Saul.” In the pilot, the main character, Jimmy McGill, is standing by an elevator. We get a wide shot with a dented trash can in the foreground. Jimmy looks at it, so we understand it’s pertinent, but we don’t know its significance yet.
The scene progresses, and we end up in a vast fancy law firm where Jimmy seems to know everybody. They could have introduced the location by having Jimmy enter through the front door. However, by having Jimmy come up through the basement on the elevator, we’ve already started to associate frustration and possibly anger with this location even though Jimmy seems friendly with everyone.
As the scene continues, we get a few minutes of dialogue that provides background information about where we are and Jimmy’s relationship with these people. Another short segment updates us on a subplot from the episode without using any dialogue. Then five minutes later, when we started to forget about the trashcan, we see Jimmy kicking it in a fit of rage.
It is the payoff with a brilliant shot that pulls back in a fantastic reveal. This sequence uses visuals to establish that Jimmy has a history at this place. He’s worked with these people and experienced frustrations before, but not a word of exposition is needed.
The most noticeable thing about “Better Call Saul” is its unique look. Wide shots are used to fantastic effect. In most shows and movies these days, wide shots often serve to establish a scene, but “Better Call Saul” uses them to their full potential.
In addition to establishing places and settings, super-wide shots communicate a sense of aloneness and are used for dramatic emphasis, much like a close-up. Watch any episode at random from a crime or law show, and you often end up with scenes that consist of a wide establishing shot with two to three people talking, followed by a series of over-the-shoulder medium close-ups.
“Better Call Saul,” a show where many characters are lawyers and paralegals, could easily fall into this trap. However, they keep the scenes grounded in the world with these wide and ultra-wide shots. But the use of wide angles — while the most obvious — isn’t the only thing that makes the cinematography special. The directors often use longer takes, dynamic blocking and go the extra mile with location work to create incredibly cinematic moments.
“Better Call Saul” has a slow, deliberate pace rarely found on TV. The first post-title scene of the show is a quiet, awkward courtroom. It’s eight minutes from the start of the episode; then, you get a real audible line of dialogue. This is usually when pilot episodes try to suck you in with something exciting or intense; even “Breaking Bad” started with more of a bang. But “Better Call Saul” establishes itself as a quieter and slower-paced series.
The drama in each episode is less intense than those in many other shows. “Better Call Saul” does an excellent job of unfolding those minor dramatic moments in a way that feels meaningful. A mild story isn’t less screen-worthy; it just needs a different lens. “Better Call Saul” gives us that lens by giving the characters the time and the space they need to live, breathe and grow.
The show’s creators don’t tell the audience to care about Jimmy or sympathize with Mike Ehrmantraut. They allow us to see them in action, good and bad, and the audience can’t help but feel endeared to them.
Series with rich, fully fleshed-out characters are more common in TV now, but it’s still challenging to pull off. “Better Call Saul” has human characters perform tasks that genuinely make sense and are not just for the sake of the plot. Jimmy’s relationship with his brother, Chuck McGill, is an excellent example. While many viewers dislike Chuck and tend to side with Jimmy, Chuck is treated relatively sympathetically when a conflict arises. We can understand his motivations and why he feels the way he does when a dispute arises with his brother, and this is true to life.
In life, when a rift forms between two people, it can often be hard to place the blame on one person in particular. Instead, there are usually parts of their personalities or value systems at odds, and the fault is often a matter of perspective. The series doesn’t paint its characters in black and white. It’s hard to identify a real villain. The show often lets us see and consider both sides of an issue.
Similarly, Kim Wexler and Jimmy’s relationship is given minimal exposition. We don’t know much about their history or current status, but we don’t need to because we’re shown as much as we need to care about them.
“Better Call Saul” often defies definitions existing outside any clear genre; it is whatever it needs to be for an episode or story beat. Some of the comedic scenes with Jimmy, and the brilliant silent investigative scenes with Mike, feel like they could come from two different kinds of stories. But the segments never feel dissonant, the comedy never feels out of place, and the drama doesn’t appear too somber. It’s a balancing act propelled by analytical writing that serves the story instead of the genre. You never feel that they added plot elements to keep it a crime show or a comedy.
“Better Call Saul” is in a unique position. The audience knows how the show ends before it even starts. They know who Saul Goodman is from “Breaking Bad.” But even if they don’t, the cold-open flash-forwards from the start of each season reminds us what the end game is for Jimmy McGill. Saul Goodman is an inevitable future for Jimmy McGill. How many shows announce the outcome in the very title? Most titles merely hint at the premise, but “Better Call Saul” is a thematically purposeful series; it doesn’t beat around the bush.
I don’t think all shows should be more upfront and direct about their themes and where they’re going, but the fact that “Better Call Saul” does sets it firmly apart in a sea of well-produced TV. It flirts with a fatalism that we rarely experience on the small screen. In this way, it’s the perfect spinoff and development of “Breaking Bad.” It doesn’t just happen in the same story; it’s cut from the same thematic cloth.
“Better Call Saul” reverse-engineers “Breaking Bad.” Where “Breaking Bad” took you on a journey to hate a character as they become downright evil, “Better Call Saul” shows you someone’s past and how they become a sleazy criminal. This experience makes us feel sympathetic to the character by revealing what made him become Saul Goodman.
“Better Call Saul” keeps the viewer in suspense. The writers are pulling you along with overlapping questions and answers. This tactic keeps the show interesting, even though the biggest dramatic question has already been answered.
By moving the audience’s minds off of the primary question of what happens to Jimmy in the end, the show lets them focus on how Jimmy gets there. The writers are comfortable with the viewer being in the dark for entire scenes or episodes. It doesn’t feel like they have to spell it out for you when the answer is revealed. Answers are slowly unraveled, like the true nature of Chuck’s condition, and it creates an air of mystery that doesn’t exist in many thrillers and crime-solving shows.
The creators truly understand the idea of “show don’t tell.” Watching “Better Call Saul” feels more like a discovery than storytelling, which is a cornerstone of a fantastic experience with TV or film.
One scene has Chuck showing Jimmy how to peel the tape off his wall so that the wood doesn’t get damaged. Jimmy would rather rip it off quickly, but Chuck is careful, methodical and precise — highlighting the differences between the two brothers.
Nevertheless, Jimmy is willing to learn Chuck’s method and apply it. A whole episode later, Jimmy finds himself in a similar situation, but he opts to remove the tape like Chuck — only to rip the tape off at the end. There is no dialogue but it still communicates Jimmy’s unconscious desire to fit into his brother’s mold and his conscious rebellion against that feeling. “Better Call Saul” is endlessly drawing the audience in, making them think, “What’s going on inside that character’s head?”
It’s hard to rank “Better Call Saul” among the many great TV shows, but it’s one best. The series is consistently fresh, exciting and logical. The fantastic cinematography, music, rich characters, interesting themes and good writing has many looking forward to seeing where the show will lead. TV is an incredible challenge; it’s hard to maintain quality for 40, 60, or even 100 hours, so it’s essential to celebrate the achievement when it is pulled off.