A&E has gathered together some formidable talent to creates its Psycho prequel series Bates Motel, with Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) producing, and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) as Norma and Norman Bates. The series is billed as a “contemporary” prequel to Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, and while the show does take place in that familiar setting with a few winking call-backs to the original film, it’s clear that it wants to be its own thing. The show is seeking to straddle that difficult line of basing itself off of very familiar material (which guarantees an audience, if just from the curiosity) — though which also burdens it with the fact that things have to end up at a certain place at a certain point — and doing something new with the story. Things have started off slowly and strangely in the first hour, with the show seeming to not quite find its tone, but there are also some legitimately promising elements. Hit the jump for why “we belong to each other.”
One of the issues I’ve noted in a piece like The Americans is that because the show stays within the bounds of history, we already know the outcome on a macro level, and it’s only when the show began focusing on more micro dramas that it began to really start to gain emotional traction. As far as Bates Motel goes, we know how things are going to end up for Norma and Norman, and we can guess a lot of the rest. And while Bates Motel teases this out by confirming a lot of our suspicions, it also attempts to do more than just be one long “How I Killed My Mother.”
Still, the pilot episode (like most pilot episodes) was clunky and occasionally campy, with Vera Farmiga playing a unsettling version of Norma. She’s not completely unhinged, but there is something not right about her, from the first moments we see Norman waking to find his father bleeding to death from an accident … or was it? Norma’s calm and unhurried demeanor and slight smile seemed to indicate she was happy about how things played out, and possibly had a hand in them (saying “I’m sorry” to Norman in comfort — was it a confession?)
We find out later on in “First You Dream, Then You Die” that Norma is very resourceful when it comes to death, particularly when it comes to hiding a corpse. That scene was very strange, and broke the trance-like pace of the rest of the episode with a very violent sexual assault on Norma by the creep whose family lost the motel and house to the Bates. The moment was shocking and odd, as was her reaction to it later, after taking care of his body. “Norman, I’m sorry that dirtbag raped me” she says in a deadpan tone as they push the body off the side of the boat.
For his part, Norman doesn’t seem comfortable with hiding bodies, and he vomits at school the next day over the thought of it. He still seems salvageable, despite his interest in the manga sketches he finds that depict women bound and under duress (or did he create some of them himself?) He’s a weird kid, but he’s handsome and likable, and is easily swooped up by a gaggle of attractive girls at his high school. That development doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it does give him a love interest (Bradley Martin, played by Nicola Peltz) as well as a friend, Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke), who suffers from cystic fibrosis.
In the original film, Norma is described as an overbearing mother who wouldn’t allow Norman to have a life outside of hers, and while Farmiga’s Norma is certainly emotionally manipulative, Norman does seem to want to escape from her close grasp (though surely feels guilt over it since the moment he leaves his mother is raped). Yet, on the lake he basically professes his love for her. Poor Norman comes off as being pretty confused.
One of the worst bits of the opening episode involved Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel), who came poking around the Bates Motel in the night for no real reason, acting like they were suspicious of Norma but at that point, why? And for Romero to pee right next to the corpse without seeing or smelling anything? Unlikely. But, as I have pointed out a hundred times before, pilots aren’t usually that great, and Bates Motel has set up enough “creepy small town” elements to make it seem like it has the potential to become its own thing outside of the shadow of Psycho. What people always want to know, after all, is what makes a killer. It looks like we’re going to get front row seats to this one.
Episode Rating: B
Musings and Miscellanea:
- We also learned in this episode that Norman has a half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), who was unseen but will likely come back into their lives soon.
- The series has a nice timeless quality to it, so even though it’s modern (iPhones!) the house has a lot of vintage furniture and appliances, and Farmiga’s wardrobe in particular has a classic feel.
- So did Norma kill Papa Bates?
- Besides the house itself, the show also gives a call-back to the idea of the bypass, and also the body in the trunk. Norman had to learn somehow!
- Freddie Highmore is British, for those unaware, and his American accent waivers a bit but overall I think he’s doing a good job. The acting is a bit wooden at the moment but then again, it kinda fits in with the character.
- Who knew Vera Farmiga could be so creepy? She sometimes finds the oddest intonations in lines.
- “There is a cord between our hearts” – Orson Welles via Jane Eyre via Norman.
- So when do things between mother and son get a little too close, do we think? I’m going to say towards the end of the season, but it will be uncomfortable all the way.