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“Bates Motel” Premiere Works Best When Not Being “Psycho”; Review
Let’s face it. Nearly everyone tuning into Monday’s “Bates Motel” premiere will be doing so out of admiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” horror franchise.
But from a quality standpoint, that reality is the worst burden one could ever impose on A&E’s buzzworthy new drama.
The connection to “Psycho” might be the drawing card, but the true, enthralling brilliance of the series lies far deeper in the heart of the series. That core, one focused on a story of an overworked, yet overbearing mother and her awkward, weird, overprotected, yet cautiously optimistic son, is what really has the potential to make “Bates Motel” a Monday mainstay.
To a certain extent, the minds behind the show, including famed “Lost” creator Carlton Cuse and “Friday Night Lights” writer Kerry Ehrin, understand what works for the Bates family. In Norma and Norman they have created two intriguing characters whose complex relationship–and differing efforts to integrate into their new town–makes for phenomenally compelling television.
But, at least as far as the series premiere is concerned, when they pull the trigger on the “Psycho” elements that the show devolves into something far more “ordinary” and far less remarkable. It is not that the show is ever bad, but with “American Horror Story” finding a way to mix horror, dark comedy and excessive weirdness into something artistic, “Bates Motel” has no prayer of standing out as a brilliant horror series.
Its calling–and opportunity to shine–is as a fresh take on the “family drama” prototype.
The plot, at least as far as the pilot goes, departs notably from “Psycho IV,” its closest movie counterpart, but does share some common threads, including Mr. Bates’ passing. That leaves Norma and Norman alone in their quest to survive in the world, and it brings them to purchase the house and adjacent motel that will eventually become the storied “Bates Motel.”
Through obvious, contrived signals–think iPhones and Taylor Swift’s “22″–”Bates Motel” establishes its narrative as a modernized one, but it still relies on traditional notions of small town America to create White Pine Bay. That means mass awareness and curiosity about new neighbors, sheriffs who know the ins and outs of the town and cartoonishly-ravenous, drunk, disgruntled former motel owners.
As the stages are set, Vera Farmiga instantly steals the show with a wonderfully-nuanced take on Norma. She could easily play the most shallow conception of the domineering mother but instead approaches the role with an impressive sense of vulnerability and internal uncertainty. Norma knows how to tug on her son’s heart strings and guilty conscience, but she does so out of legitimate fear about confronting her ambitious new life on her own rather than out of some comical need to control.
Rather than playing Norma as a mother who is obviously going to turn her son into a nutjob serial killer, Farmiga textures the character as one that can ease comfortably into a parenting style that, retrospectively, will set young Norman on the wrong course.
As a teenage Norman, Freddie Highmore plays his character as quirky with a hint of weird, rather than vice versa, in order to humanize the present-day iteration of the boy. Largely under his mother’s spell, Norman is nonetheless enthusiastic enough about a normal life to rebel on occasion, and that quest to become normal–without the cushy at-home environment that produces normal kids–makes for an endearing high school character.
It also explains why Norman, as the new boy at school, is so interesting to–and easily embraced by–a group of pretty, presumably-popular girls at school when the superficial laws of high school would ordinarily render him invisible to them. He, as one will articulate, appears to be a good shade of different. He is not yet serial-killer quirky.
By grounding the character–and by feeding so brilliantly off Farmiga’s work as Norma–Highmore creates a version of Norman that would be intriguing even without the “Psycho” connection. How Norman approaches his mother’s controlling nature, along with the awkwardness of moving to a new town, his seemingly-reciprocated crush on “it” girl Bradley Martin (played endearingly by Nicola Peltz, who has the look and charm of someone with legitimate star potential) and another potential female connection in Olivia Cooke’s misfit Emma, consistently makes for enrapturing television. It establishes a character who could thrive in even the most basic “family/coming-of-age drama.”
And it is for that reason that I could not help but sigh when a traumatic, mid-pilot event sets the wheels in motion for the eventual “Psycho” conversion. The “Bates” pilot handles much of the scene (save for a cringeworthy recap line from Farmiga that would make for a darkly-comedic meme at best and an affront to the women’s rights movement at worst) and its aftermath with an effective combination of tension and camp, but it just feels so depressing to remember that “Bates Motel” is ultimately about going there. It cannot just be the wonderfully-intriguing tale of how an awkward teenage boy’s relationship with his nuanced mother impacts his life; it must be a horror adventure.
Whether focusing on the real-time action involving the Bates family or the background introduction of a serialized torture/murder storyline, nothing in the second-half of the “Bates Motel” pilot is uninteresting. Farmiga and Highmore might not show quite the same adeptness when it concerns the transition from the family drama into the semi-campy, semi-serious thriller, but they still deliver the goods. Two late-episode scenes, including a hotel-room encounter with Nestor Carbonell’s Sheriff Romero and one on a boat, are particularly engrossing.
The problem is that the required connection to at least some version of the “Psycho” story removes a layer of sincerity from the proceedings. Instead of an organic tale about struggling single mother and awkward high school son, “Bates Motel” gets strapped onto a train with a very obvious direction. And no matter how exciting that journey is, that knowledge that the characters will ultimately get somewhere horrific perpetually risks turning them into devices rather than people.
Still, for all their willingness to go with camp, high-action and horror-movie-suspense, the writers are also careful to maintain a grave pacing. And that likely ensures the kind of deep characterization and focused storytelling necessary for a successful television drama. Even in the episode’s back-half, there is a lot to suggest “Bates Motel” is a series worth watching.
But after the enthralling early portion of the premiere, one simply cannot help but wonder if the show would have been better off kicking away its horror crutch. One simply cannot help but consider whether “Bates Motel” would have worked more effectively as a coming-of-age drama that eventually transformed into a story about Norman Bates rather than a “Psycho”-based series that occasionally exists as a stand-alone family drama.
“Bates Motel” premieres Monday, March 18 at 10PM ET on A&E