A&E‘s new original series Bates Motel premieres on March 18th but PopBytes was lucky enough to catch the first episode during a screening at SXSW. In the prequel to Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1960 film classic Psycho, Norma Bates is played by the incredible Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), while her son Norman Bates is played by Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The creator of the show, Anthony Cipriano (Twelve and Holding), Executive Producer Carlton Cuse (Lost), and Executive Producer Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) imagine what the formative years of Norman Bates was like. “It’s not an exact remake,” Cuse explains during a Q&A that followed the screening. It’s true. Though, the first few minutes of the episode are intentionally a bit confusing, it’s a modern-day take on everything that leads up to the original Psycho.
In the first six minutes of the episode (posted below) there is already a death. Norman Bates finds his father dead in the basement of their home. A few months later Norma and Norman relocate into the iconic home and motel we all have been conditioned to fear, just off a highway of what looks like the coast of the Pacific Northwest. “This is our chance to start over,” Norma tells her son. He’s not buying it. “Maybe some people don’t get to start over,” he says. When Norma says everything is going to be good, while the melodramatic score comes in, you know this show means the opposite.
Highmore fulfills the iconic role very convincingly. He’s an introverted loner who has a deep affection for his mother. Like the original source material hints at, this “deep affection” is subtle and a bit ridiculous. This psychosexual analysis between a mother and son is part camp and part real. Norman is the type of 17-year-old who gets invited to study one night by a group of girls and actually brings his schoolbooks with him. This actually happens and he awkwardly fumbles around these new social spaces. Radiohead’s “Climbing Up The Walls” plays during a party montage scene that almost culminates in a kiss. This is where Bates Motelsold me. Who pulls that song from their teenage record collection? Every aspect of this show is thought through. From the music to the set design.
The best part of the show is the underrated Vera Farmiga. She is one of the best actresses of her generation. Farmiga’s Norma Bates is sexy, current and manipulative. When Norman comes home from school late one night and asks her to sign a permission slip to join the track team, she guilts him into agreeing it is a bad idea. When given cliché lines, Farmiga is aware of it, even if the producers are not, and delivers them brilliantly. During the Q&A, Cuse said he always had Farmiga in mind when creating the show. He even said he sent her a love note along with the script.
Bates Motel seems to balance the dramatic and very real elements of the show with a lot of tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top elements. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Without spoiling the episode, there is one scene in particular that is very real and perhaps unnecessary. This one moment seems to be the crux of Norma’s life (and consequentially Norman’s). It sets the trajectory of the show and offers explanations to what will follow. Personally, I don’t think the re-imagining of Hitchcock’s classic needs to stoop to such a level but we live in a world where the Saw franchise and Hostel are blockbuster successes. Despite its minor flaws, Bates Motel works. I’ll be tuning in every week, to see what guests might arrive for a place to rest their heads.