Thanks to commenters on my Rubicon post for pointing me to two articles that help clarify things. The first is this New York Times article on Rubicon, which talks a lot about its heavy retooling after the original pilot, and the creator’s departure when he felt that AMC was screwing with his vision — further evidence, I suppose, that the “creator-driven” show can only go so far if the creator’s ideas don’t seem to be working. But it also mentions the fact that the show uses only real locations, with a real building providing most of the rooms that we see in the show. That doesn’t mean the drab look follows automatically from the use of practical locations — I’d suspect that the retooling and changes in authorial voice have more to do with it. But I still think it’s necessary to clarify that the tacky sets are, in fact, tacky real rooms (not that that’s better than a set).
The other is an article in Variety, which I’m not linking because of the paywall, which says that the budget for the second season of Breaking Bad is said to be around 3 million an episode. This would put it, Variety says, on “the high end” of basic cable budgets, and make me wrong when I say that BB is low-budget. I was basing it on Vince Gilligan’s statements, like this one, where he explained that they moved production to New Mexico because “we wanted our limited production budget to go that much farther.” Either the budget has gone up since then or he was using “limited” relative to a premium cable or broadcast budget. (My points about the techniques the show uses to paper over a limited number of shot setups, and so on, still applies; they don’t have as many shot setups or retakes as a big network show, and they’ve found ways to make that work.)
While I’m discussing AMC shows… I’m not going to do a big Mad Men post because there’s not a lot to add to the extant discussions of the season premiere. (Besides, Matt Weiner might consider it a spoiler even to talk about an episode that’s already aired.) But on the subject of visuals, one of the keys to Mad Men‘s impact is something that is possibly more important than period detail or cool suits: the use of light and colour to give character to a scene. The way colour is used is a welcome throwback to the movies that were made in the show’s time period, when the idea was to pick certain colours that would stick out in a scene and call attention to themselves. A famous example, and a very old-school colour choice, is having a character wear the only bit of red in the otherwise mostly black/white/gray boardroom. That was a conscious decision made to set him apart from the others, a throwback to a movie like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? where the boss’s roses (the only reminder of the career he really wanted) are the only non-dull colours in an entire meeting.
It’s not just what it says about the character, though; it’s also the power of colour to give character to a scene, and the effectiveness of bold, rich colours like the colours of the fruit in a market. And equally bold contrasts in lighting, like cutting from Don in the gloomy light of his former house to Don in the blinding, ultra-artificial light of his office. Not every show has to use that ’60s aesthetic in terms of colour choices, but it certainly does help for a show to pay attention to the impact of colour, and choose costumes and props on that basis.