He’s one of the most famous sons in cinema, the likable but creepy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who turns out to have a very weird relationship with his mother. And he just happens to run Bates Motel, a sleepy place off the turnpike that hardly gets any customers at all, until larcenous secretary Lila Crane (Vera Miles) needs a place to spend the night. The shower, the stuffed birds looming, the ominous house above the hotel, it all added up to one of the most brilliant horror films ever made: ‘Psycho’.
But who was Norman Bates and where did he come from? What’s his backstory? And what about his mother?
Enter the smartly written new A&E series ‘Bates Motel’. Starring the likable Freddie Highmore as young Norman and Vera Farmiga as his mom Norma, the opening episode proves entertaining, if a bit uneven and flawed in production.
The show opens with Norman’s Dad collapsed, dead, on the basement floor of their 50’s style house near Scottsdale, Arizona. His Mom is showering and seems oddly unaffected when Norman drags her to the body, hysterical. Next scene they’ve moved to a small town called White Pine Bay and she’s bought a foreclosure, a small 7-room motel with a separate house looming behind. The Seafarer Motel.
Norman’s a quirky but likable 17 year old boy and he makes friends with the local posse of gorgeous high school girls, led by Bradley (Nicola Peltz), whose interest is more than a bit inexplicable. Even the other boys at the school are friendly to Norman, and when he throws up in a trashcan at school, Emma (Oliva Cooke) shows up, equally quirky and full of shy smiles. What high school has ever been this embracing of the weird new kid?
Meanwhile, back at the Motel, crazy local Keith Summers shows up and vents his frustration that they’ve bought a motel that’s been in his family since great-granddaddy built it. Keith’s visit doesn’t really end well and we learn that while the show is moody, there’s also violence and mayhem, including a rape scene. All as one would expect for a series showing how Norman became, well, psycho.
I like to pay attention to details, and appreciated that White Pine Bay, in both its layout and exteriors, is a nod to Bodega Bay, a little seaside village that had quite a bird problem in another Hitchcock movie. Birds also show up as illustrations on the walls of the hotel rooms in the Seafarer Motel too. Nice attention to detail, an attention that isn’t surprising when you learn that head writer Robert Bloch is the author of the book that the original ‘Psycho’ film was based on.
But there’s a big problem in the show: when it takes place. The film ‘Psycho’ was released in 1960, so it’d be logical for a teenage Norman to be going to high school in the early 1950s. At times the show does have a sepia tonality and fashions suggesting it’s set back then. For example, pay attention to the hairstyle, clothing and even room color palette when his teacher Miss Watson is on screen.
Except that the show is actually set in contemporary times, as reinforced by the omnipresence of iPhones, sporty convertibles and the music at a rave/party Norman attends for a short period of time.
Or is it? Back at the newly renamed Bates Motel, Norman’s listening to the Rolling Stones from a vinyl LP on a record player. That’s not 50s or 2013, though. Huh?
This temporal confusion is the greatest weakness in the show’s first episode: I’d have rather seen it be all contemporary and assume they’ve jumped forward in time 60 years for narrative necessity, or had it all set in the 50s so that it could weave more logically into the original film. By doing neither, it ends up a bit of a mess.
Worse, the tone isn’t quite right because the writers seemingly don’t have the patience to let anxiety build. The original film is a masterwork in slow, gradual anxiety, culminating in quite terrifying scenes, but ‘Bates Motel’, so far at least, seems just as influenced by the MTV generation, which is too bad.
I’d like to see things move more slowly in the show, with ominous scenes that build suspense, things happening that we the viewer can see but that the characters in the show are oblivious about, even as the danger mounts.
Finally, there’s a lack of emotion in the actor portrayal of the characters that’s wrong, even within the context of Norma and Norman being ostensibly psychotic (as in “detached emotionally”). This first comes out in the opening scene with the death of Norman’s father, but it’s far more pronounced in the ((SPOILER ALERT)) rape scene and Norma’s post-rape behavior. I don’t care how detached you are, her cool, calm collected behavior is unbelievable and a moment that could have had a huge impact on us viewers instead just seems distant and unengaging
I’d give it a 3 1/2 out of 5 and hope we’ll see the storyline and settings smooth out. I’m certainly curious about the shocking scene that ends this premiere episode!
How about you? Did you watch it, and if so, what’s your take on this first episode, the casting and the storyline?