By Kelly Etz, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 25, 2013
After Alfred Hitchcock ruined showers for everyone with one iconic scene, Norman Bates became a household name. Now A&E fancifully imagines the beginning of the “Psycho” legacy in the new prequel series, “Bates Motel.”
Mondays at 10 p.m.
The pilot begins with Norman (Freddie Highmore, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) finding his father dead in the garage, leaving the 17-year-old in an eerie co-dependence with his overreaching mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”). Wanting a fresh start, the two pack up for the not-so-pleasantville of White Pine Bay and the infamous house on the hill.
Teenage Norman is a deadly cocktail of hormones and budding psychosis beneath an innocuous baby face. Quoting “Jane Eyre” and stealing glimpses at a creepily salacious book of drawings, the younger Bates is true North for every female in town — the well-meaning guidance counselor, the popular clique, loner Emma and, of course, the center of his world: his mother.
It’s almost fitting, then, that Farmiga’s Norma steals every scene. Richly drawn and shrewdly acted, the ultimate mother is fearsome indeed. Anger, wit and buckets of repressed sensuality make up the formidable Mrs. Bates, while a truly white-knuckled rape scene humanizes her. The subsequent wild stabbing is vindicated, even gratifying. It certainly proves the series isn’t afraid of a little bloodshed to go along with all that intrigue.
Despite the spurts of action, the premiere coasts on the ever-present tension surrounding mother and son. Every interaction is just shy of too-far; the pair are a little too close in every way. Each touch is oddly and erotically charged, while a heart-to-heart over dumping the body is a nice foreshadowing of horror to come. Norma’s obvious jealousy, paired with Norman’s not-quite-oblivious attitude, manages to keep the pace from becoming stale.
For a series destined to end in only one way (unless the series rewrites history à la “Inglourious Basterds”), “Bates Motel” needs to do more than subtly play with the reasons behind Norman’s eventual neurosis. While the interchange between Farmiga and Highmore is superb, it won’t hold an entire series together. The end of the pilot seems to move in this direction, panning over an immobilized figure, ankle-cuffed in a concrete room. White Pine Bay gets more “Twin Peaks”-esque with every passing minute.
Shrouded in a patina of the antique — from Peter Pan collars to record players — the premiere feels ageless, keeping viewers off-balance and adrift. The in-and-out setting distances the series from the original film, despite the numerous references — stowing a body in a shower, Norman’s black and white film fetish, hinting at the eventual highway bypass — and prevents the premiere from becoming merely homage to Hitchcock.
While the series manages to craft the beginnings of a believably grim backstory for the famed killer, A&E will have to work harder to create depth, or else have been better off with a two-hour special or mini-series. Limitations aside, the original mama’s boy is in fine form.