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‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘The Crown,’ ‘This Is Us’ Settings Add Extra Challenges

Every writer and producer is tasked with building three-dimensional worlds that are populated not only with colorful characters but also production design details unique to their individual stories. Writers and producers who create period pieces — whether that period is 15 years ago, 30 years ago, or an indeterminate future — have the added challenge of the specificity of the time.

“I will freely admit, as with most things, we went in blissfully unaware of the challenges,” says Peter Gould, co-showrunner of AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” His show takes place about 15 years in the past, which Gould thought would be easier to re-create than anything set decades before that. He very quickly found that wasn’t true with every detail he needed to bring into the show, though.

“Most of our characters are not driving the latest and greatest cars, so we were looking for these old junkers and couldn’t find them,” Gould says. “Then [transportation captain] Dennis Milliken tells me about the program back then ‘Cash for Clunkers’ where they paid good money for these polluting vehicles, so there’s a real shortage of these generic, not sexy cars.”

In addition to being limited with the kinds of vehicles “Better Call Saul” can feature, even in the background of exterior shots, the show is also set early enough that the use of cell phones was very different. Gould could write scenes where his characters call each other quickly from wherever they are, which certainly helps in disseminating information among them without using too many eights of a page, but the same cannot be said for when they need to look up information. After all, 15 years ago was still a time before smartphones were extensions of people’s hands. Working on the show has forced Gould to focus more on the “when” of things, as well as to tap into the specific culture of the time.

To that end, Gould chose to make a Blockbuster Video set to further orient viewers in “Better Call Saul’s” time period. “We wanted to bring back that blue and yellow with the rows and rows of tapes with covers,” Gould says of the iconic imagery. “One of the more challenging things was getting clearances for all those covers. We had everyone on the phones to make it work. And that experience made us all wonder what things seem so permanent to us now that might be gone in just 15 years.”

“Timelines are really hard. Period stuff is really hard. We’re spending a lot of different periods with the same actors. When you do this stuff, you’ve got to accept that it’s going to be challenging.”
Dan Fogelman

While “Better Call Saul” takes place in the recent past, Netflix’s royal family drama “The Crown” is set more than a half-century ago, in the 1950s, when Princess Elizabeth ascended to the throne to become Queen Elizabeth II. Peter Morgan, who is at the helm of “The Crown,” had been building that world for some time. His 2013 play, “The Audience,” starred Helen Mirren as the queen and took place from her ascension in 1952 to the present day. The first 10 episodes of “The Crown” also take place in the 1950s, a world Morgan fleshed out through lavish sets and luxurious costumes thanks to financial freedom from the streaming service.

“It gave us the opportunity to be really ambitious and to put that money on the screen, which is what we did,” Morgan says. “You want to go in hard on what the emotional consequences are [because] I don’t think of the crown as glamorous. It’s this murderous, bejeweled thing.”

Such series as NBC’s “This Is Us” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” jump between time periods, bringing about the added challenge of enriching individual scenes with as many specific details as possible to allow the viewer to differentiate between them immediately.

This Is Us” has used subtle changes in culture to build the periods between the parents raising their three children in the 1980s and 1990s with the present day, now-grown siblings. While the fact that the show spanned multiple decades was not revealed until the end of the pilot episode, series creator Dan Fogelman scattered enough breadcrumbs — characters lighting up cigarettes outside a hospital nursery, for example — throughout the first 40 minutes to tip the show’s twist.

“Timelines are really hard. Getting the period stuff is really hard,” says Fogelman. “We’re spending a lot of different periods with the same actors.”

Over the course of the season, “This Is Us” relied on wardrobe, hair styles (including facial hair), and such key props as landline telephones to further drive this point home. Fogelman points to the season finale as one episode that was “incredibly ambitious” and therefore complicated, but he’s proud of what they accomplished. “When you do this stuff, you’ve got to accept that it’s going to be challenging,” Fogelman says.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,’’ on the other hand, jumps between a time that resembles the audience’s present day and sometime in a dystopian future when the new political regime Gilead reigns. Just as in Margaret Atwood’s novel, the show does not explain just how much time has passed to allow the regime to firmly take place. In differentiating the two worlds, showrunner Bruce Miller took the everyday life of contemporary Boston and contrasted it with the dystopian world of Gilead.

“We show women going to the gym, going for coffee and then when we jump to Gilead, those things have been taken away,” Miller says. “This kind of world is scary because it feels so real. Once it stops feeling real, it stops being scary.”

Miller feels lucky that the novel allowed him to “start with a good foundation” and pull out a lot of details to depict the periods on-screen, but he notes that he did build out from where the book left off. Some of the changes he made included making Gilead environmentally friendly, something Miller says is not normally associated with the far right.

“We wanted a cohesive philosophy,” Miller says. “We see them reacting to the fall in fertility rates by being more conscious of pesticides and other things. In the novel, they weren’t very green in Gilead. You don’t want to pull the thread from the tapestry, but I wanted to tether it to our world.”

Miller’s Gilead has hybrid cars scooting noiselessly through the streets so that the sounds of the society get back to nature with birds singing, insects chirping and dogs barking. “There is something many might find very inviting about this world where there is order in the place of chaos. This world is built out of something remarkable, but at what cost?” asks Miller.

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