Let us now visit the latest example of prequels/reboots/movie-to-TV: Bates Motel. Developed by Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) the new A&E series is an origin story of sorts for Norma Bates and her son Norman, the killer from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film classic Psycho. Instead of traveling back to a time prior to the 1960 events of the film (and novel), Bates Motel frames the story in the present day, with young Norman practicing his stabbing on his iPhone.
Our story begins with Norman (Freddie Highmore) awaking to find his house in a state of disarray: iron steaming, pots boiling – pressure building. He enters the garage and discovers his father bleeding to death on the floor. Norman screams for his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), who calmly exits the shower in a towel and embraces her son as he cries over his dead father; no more explanation. Months later we see the Bates making a fresh start in “White Pine Bay,” where Norma has purchased a foreclosed house and motel (because everyone knows in an unstable economy, the only safe investments are motels.) Regardless, Norma is strangely optimistic about her purchase and her family’s future. The majority of the episode highlights the unusual dynamic between our creepy mother and son protagonists, particularly the short leash that Norma keeps her son on. We also get a taste of how our Mondays with the Bates family will be: full of murder, mystery and the occasional rape…yeah, you read that right. We are also introduced to some gal pals from Norman’s new school who seem oddly interested in the gawky teen, as well as the suspicious Sheriff (played by Nestor Carbonell in all of his eyelinery wonder.)
Bates Motel is a very curious creature. It is clearly trying to brandish its own path and story while simultaneously being beholden to the symbols and iconography of Hitchcock’s film: the butcher knife, the shower and the Bates home specifically. This odd reverence makes Bates Motel somewhat similar to the early days of Smallville, if Smallville had more murder, sexual themes and Oedipal issues of course. The strange inclusion of the rape scene I mentioned earlier and the in-story reaction is bound to set some people off – for obvious moral concerns and Hitchcockian ones. If Cuse and Ehrin are really trying to achieve a resonance of the original film, they took a HUGE left turn from Hitchcock’s subtlety and went straight for the direct approach that the horror genre too often falls victim to. If nothing else, I think that the creators picked a pretty solid duo for Mother and Son Bates. Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) plays the teenage Norman with a good amount of social awkwardness and creepy adoration for his mother. Thankfully he isn’t so much of a momma’s boy that he obeys her every word and command, because that would make for boring television. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) seems to have the loftier task of portraying the woman who will eventually drive her son to madness. Norma seems to have a specific vision in mind for herself and her son, and it will be interesting to see the lengths she goes to make the family motel a success. The first hour of the series stumbled a bit and smelled too much of Hollywood horror, but I am intrigued. So we’ll see if Bates Motel can find its footing or just end up forcibly forgotten like the Vince Vaughn Pyscho remake.
Pilot Grade: ★★★½ 3.5/5 Stars