Psycho is an iconic film; even if you have never actually watched the Hitchcock classic (though what’s stopping you – go watch it!), you most likely could describe the infamous shower scene and would recognize the musical score used.
Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother figure prominently into the psychology of Psycho, but the new A&E drama Bates Motel examines this mother-son bond more closely by showing what the Bates family was like when Norman was a teenager and his mother was very much alive. Well is debatable.
The chronology of Bates Motel is a little confusing; though the television show takes place before the events of the 1960 film Psycho, Bates Motel is set in the modern day. People have cell phones and iPads, yet the motel and the Bates family home have a distinctive vintage feel. I’ll admit that this isn’t exactly the show that I thought I was getting, but after watching the pilot I think that Bates Motel definitely has potential.
The series begins with Norman (Freddie Highmore) discovering his father dead under what appears to be somewhat mysterious circumstances; while Norman is incredibly distraught by this discovery, his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) seems fairly nonplussed about the whole thing. This is the first indication that things in the Bates home are a bit off. Flash forward six months and Norma has used the life insurance check to relocate from Arizona to California. She has purchased a motel and the accompanying residence that have been foreclosed upon in White Pine Bay and hopes that she and her awkward son can start a new life.
It is clear from the first episode that this is a series that is “inspired” by Psycho, but will tell its own stories as well. White Pine Bay may not be the sleepy town that Norma originally thought it was; there are dark secrets hidden in this town and an undercurrent of violence and depravity is simmering just below the surface. The newly named Bates Motel may house more secrets than the transformation of Norman from naïve teenager to cross-dressing serial killer.
What I particularly liked about Bates Motel is that while there are some slight nods to the future that beholds Norman, the show is very deliberate in how the relationship of Norma and Norman develops. There are examples of Norma’s controlling nature, but if you didn’t know who her son would grow up to be nothing seems THAT out of the ordinary. Plenty of people have slightly overbearing parents and don’t wind up hacking a woman up in the shower. Bates Motel is a much more subtle show than American Horror Story; both shows deal with troubled people, but American Horror Story is about as subtle as a heart attack. You immediately know who is good and who is bad and the fun is in watching the insanity play out. Bates Motel has a nuance to it that draws you in. Norma and Norman seem like fairly ordinary people and several times throughout the pilot you feel sympathy for both characters. Bates Motel is more like an onion – there are multiple layers to this relationship between mother and son and everything will not immediately be discovered. The intrigue is in seeing how things went so terribly wrong and the show is wisely going to take its time in doling out information.
The lead actors really make these two characters come to life. It would be easy to play Norman and Norma Bates as completely over the top, but both Farmiga and Highmore give quieter and restrained performances. Farmiga is no surprise – she was nominated for an Oscar for her fine work in Up in the Air and has been excellent in everything that I have seen her in. In some ways, she has the easier of the two roles as Mrs. Bates is something of a blank slate; we don’t know much about her from Psycho, so there is greater creative license. Highmore will be familiar to viewers from his work in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland and he does the role of Norman Bates justice. His accent needs a little work (Highmore is British), but he otherwise makes Norman a sweet and shy boy that you can believe is the early incarnation of the man that Anthony Perkins made so legendary. The two actors play nicely off each other and I look forward to seeing this relationship develop.
My only real concern is the concern that I have with all prequels: can they make the story interesting in and of itself, even if the viewer knows where everything is headed. The problem I find with a lot of prequels is that they seem superfluous; they fill in some blanks, but with the outcome preordained they tend to feel like they are just killing time until reaching the inevitable conclusion that everyone knows is coming. This is especially problematic for a television show that does not have a definitive number of episodes. I think that the strategy and structure set out in the pilot for Bates Motel is promising. By making the show about more than just the mental unraveling of Norman and by proceeding cautiously, the show may prove to be interesting in and of itself rather than just filling in the backstory. I’m curious if they can sustain this, but I like what I’ve seen so far.
Some other thoughts:
- The show has an impressive TV pedigree – the executive producers are Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights).
- Speaking of Lost, one of the Pine Bay sheriffs is played by Nestor Carbonell, who Losties will recognize as Richard Alpert.
- I have to say, it was a nice change of pace for the show to not immediately make the popular kids at the high school into terrible people. I get that high school is lousy for a lot of people, but not everyone is a “mean girl.”
- Interesting wrinkle in this version of the Psycho universe: Norman has a half-brother that is estranged from their mother. We don’t meet him in the pilot, but he does apparently appear in some episodes.
- There is a sexual assault in the pilot that isn’t necessarily graphic or gratuitous, but viewer discretion may be advised.
- Vera Farmiga is the older sister of Taisa Farmiga, who starred in the first and upcoming third season of American Horror Story. The Farmiga sisters obviously are drawn to some creepy stuff.
Though it’s only the first episode, I think that Bates Motel has set the table for what could be an interesting television program. It isn’t exactly the story that I thought that they would be telling – the modern day setting really threw me off – but in the end I think that they are taking this in a more compelling and sustainable direction. Making Norman and Norma Bates fairly likable and relatable people will result in the ultimate breaking point on the horizon being that much more fascinating and powerful.
Bates Motel airs on A&E Monday nights at 10 pm (ET). The pilot is available online and will re-air throughout the week.