Bates Motel (2013)'s odd atmosphere and tone make it different from anything else on television. It has an air of mystery and suspense that permeates every moment. Much of this drama stems from the fact that audiences know the ending; it is, after all, a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic Psycho, and as the show’s Netflix blurb is keen to remind us, everyone knows the person Norman Bates becomes. There’s an increased sense of dread when you know where the story is headed. This tragic framing colors every decision and every nuanced movement the characters make, and the show hinges on audience curiosity about the twisted path that leads to Psycho’s chilling events.
But what really adds to the show’s puzzling appeal is the fact that it’s set in the present day, yet it imagines the origin story of Norman's early life, which -- in Hitchcock’s timeline -- should have happened in the 1940s. This bold choice to disregard logical timing frees the series to grow into more than just the backstory to a classic film. The show is not bound by its source material, but cites it as an inspiration.
Carlton Cuse, creator of Bates Motel and former writer/producer of Lost (2004), says the show needs a modern-day setting. A period piece set prior to the events of Psycho was never an option, and it wouldn’t have worked. “Right from the get-go, I would not have done the show if it was period,” he says. “Then I think you can really feel the pressure to be living literally in the shadow of the movie and that felt way too confining.”
Turning Bates Motel into a contemporary story gives the creative team the space to choose the directions they want to follow for the characters. The show’s core is an exploration of how this seemingly sweet and caring young man transitions into the detached serial killer in Hitchcock’s film, and it of course tracks the impact of his relationship with his mother on that transformation.
Meanwhile, there’s a sense that the Bates family’s “present-day” life is colored by the past. Their iconic hilltop home overlooking the motel appears lost in time, while Norma (Vera Farmiga) drives a classic early ‘70s Mercedes (when she’s not preparing dinner in an apron). And even though there’s a cell phone in his pocket, Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) wardrobe frequently appears out of date.
It’s modern day but somehow not. The house has every contemporary luxury necessary in 2015, yet it still feels like 1960. This, of course, is intentional. The series' makers wanted to invoke the feeling of the Psycho universe without creating a distance between the show and the modern life of its viewers.
As co-executive producer Kerry Ehrin says in an interview with Xfinity, “We didn’t want it to take you out of the reality of the world. Once you think of it as a movie it’s not real anymore.”
The confusing, old-time color palette prevalent in the show’s visuals is also calculated. Speaking about the opening scenes of the series' pilot, Cuse says, “It was intentionally meant to feel timeless until the scene where you see Norman at the bus stop when he puts his earbuds in. When you’re in the house and in the motel you do feel like you’re sort of floating in this timelessness and that was a stylistic choice.”
The modern-day setting allows for easier audience immersion and engaged enjoyment, thus heightening the fun of the show and deepening our sympathy for the characters, which creates tension with our knowledge of the eventual tragic ending.