It’s hard to believe that Psycho actually qualifies as a franchise, mostly because everything after the immortal original was a steaming pile of cow flop. Three theatrical sequels, one aborted TV pilot, the well-intentioned but ultimately pointless Gus Van Sant thing… it hasn’t been an easy ride for Norman Bates and his mother. Until now.
Bates Motel starts out feeling like a terrible gimmick, covering Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) formative years in what initially promises to be a one-trick pony. Instead, the show serves up a meaty cocktail of American Gothic, as Mrs. Bates (Vera Farmiga) buys a quiet hotel with her young son in hopes of escaping a very checkered past. Naturally, things go from bad to worse as the hotel’s old owner shows up, the local sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) pops in to ask awkward questions, and bodies both real and metaphorical start getting dumped in out-of-the-way places. Hit the jump for my full review of Bates Motel season one on Blu-ray.
It’s an uneven mixture sometimes – teetering between too respectful and out-there insane – but the show runners bring it resolutely to life, mostly by refusing to submit to caricature. Far from a hateful monster she could have been, Mrs. Baste is played here as a well-meaning but clinging woman in way over her head, who resorts to increasingly ruthless means to protect what’s hers. Norman, a sweet boy with too much placed on his shoulders too soon, invites our aching sympathy as readily as Tony Perkins did in the original film. It’s the right tactic to take for both of them, preserving the twisted tone of Hitchcock’s original while finding new directions to take characters we thought we knew so well.
That’s enough for a solid eleven episodes of secrets and lies, along with a few jolts of sudden violence to keep us on our toes. In its worst moments, Bates Motel ranges far afield in search of interesting material to develop, but it still turns up plenty of fruit along with the occasional dud. As always with shows of this nature, the acting helps. Farmiga scored herself an Emmy nomination for her work here, while Highmore finds the secret savagery of Norman even as he plays our sympathies for all they’re worth.
You also get the sense of a proper dramatic progression here. The reimagining sets things in the 21st century to stay fresh, but you can see it all pointing invariably to some new version of Marion Crane and her horrifying shower on the distant horizon. Bates Motel relishes the journey, developing its monsters in slow steady steps that never let us forget the charatcers and their wounds amid the soapy blood. It’s quite a rush, both for fans of the original and newcomers (do any exist?) who aren’t necessarily interested in Hitchcock’s film. I don’t know how long they’re going to be able to keep the plates spinning, but there’s enough going on for three or four more seasons at least, and if they handle them as well as they handle this season, then Psycho will finally have a follow-up worthy of the name. That’s no mean feat in an era of quickie remakes (though NBC’s Hannibal does a decent job itself), and for that, Bates Motel earns our respect. Hopefully, the Blu-ray will gather a few more fans to it, helping it fulfill the promise that the first season makes so readily apparent.
It’s a good thing the show works, because the Blu-ray is decidedly sparse. The best element isn’t actually on the discs: a collection of the disturbing Japanese images that form the crux of one of the show’s central subplots. Beyond that, the added features include just a few deleted scenes and a panel discussion with various associated creative. Considering the legacy of the material, it feels like a big letdown, though the episodes themselves look just fine in this new format.