A&E’s ambitious prequel to Hitchcock’s 1960’s classic Psycho premiered with a stellar cast and impressive creative team. Did the pilot measure up to all the surrounding hype?
Let’s bitch it out.
The prequel concept of Bates Motel is a double-edged sword. Curiosity alone is likely to garner a significant opening audience, but at the end of the day, anyone who’s familiar with Psycho knows where things are headed, ultimately diminishing the initial curiosity that brought us to the show in the first place. The appeal of the series rests on a single question: How did Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) turn into the proverbial ‘psycho’ that we know and love from the Hitchcock film? More importantly, is that question alone enough to sustain an entire series that could potentially run for many years?
Based on the pilot episode alone, the jury’s still out. There are plenty of interesting aspects introduced, but I’m not certain if the concept is strong enough to keep my attention and interest.
The episode opens with mild-mannered, typically awkward 17-year old Norman discovering that his father has died from what looks to be an accident in their garage. Frantically, Norman tries to find his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga) who’s just gotten out of the shower and seems eerily unaffected by the news. The entire sequence is washed in sepia, with the occasional visual distortion to mimic Norman’s psychological state. Immediately we know that there’s something not quite right with Norma (clearly suggesting she had something to do with the ‘accident’) and the hazy nature of the sequence is a precursor to Norman’s road into crazy town. Knowing that we’ve got quite a few episodes to go through, I wish we would have spent more time getting to know our two protagonists before setting up this rather predictable dynamic. Fortunately, the rest of the episode does favour the slow build-up, which made me wonder if I would have enjoyed the pilot more if we hadn’t been privy to this opening sequence in the first place.
Indeed, what works best are the two leads, which is promising for such an ambitious series. Highmore has Anthony Perkins’ mannerisms down pat, but still manages to make Norman his own. He’s a typical teenager, so it comes as no surprise that he goes through the customary high school tropes: crushing on the popular girls, being the new kid, sneaking out of his bedroom etc. Highmore very adequately brings a kind of freshness to what could be a played-out archetype – and that’s primarily due to his interactions with Farmiga, who is excellent in the role of Norma. Plenty of her dialogue is clunky and almost laughable, but Farmiga is such a pro that she manages to save much of it. There’s an obvious sense that Norma is off her rocker, but Farmiga injects a wonderful nuance in her portrayal that it makes it difficult to articulate what exactly is wrong about Norma. When they first arrive to the motel, Norma excitedly skips and prances around, her affection toward Norman bordering on inappropriate. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but coupled with her full-skirted, flower dress, the scene felt purposefully unsettling.
Where the show loses me is about half way through when, out of nowhere, there’s a graphic rape scene that all but quashes the ambiguous intrigue built up in the episode’s first half. I get how the ramifications of the rape further progresses Norman’s descent, but the reasons why the assault happen in the first place are a little too convenient for my liking. Keith (W. Earl Brown) threatens Norma in an earlier scene, infuriated that the motel has been taken by the bank and sold to the Bates. He returns proclaiming that the motel “and everything in it” are rightfully his, before proceeding to terrorize and violently assault Norma. I can’t help but wonder what the hell this guy hoped to achieve had Norman not shown up when he did. How could he ever get away with the attack? I suppose I’ve been spoiled with other quality dramas in that I didn’t think characters were this stupid anymore.
The result? Knowing that Keith isn’t going to make it out of the house alive makes the events that unfold in the latter acts that much more predictable and uninteresting. It is also disheartening to see that the show feels the need to portray such a violent attack in order to propel the narrative. It feels crass, unsophisticated and quite frankly, I expected more.
The episode’s final moments show promise since it appears the series won’t exclusively follow Norman’s spiral into psycho-dom (which would get very tedious, very quickly). Instead there’s a suggestion that there’s another psycho looming around. Unfortunately, with this reveal we can also expect more violence against women in a vain attempt to entertain. Earlier we see Norman discover a sketch book depicting what can only be described as anime torture porn and in the final moments it’s revealed that these aren’t merely sketches, but scenarios that are playing out in real time. I can only hope that the series will continue to intrigue us, but without a reliance on sensationalism and poor taste.
- Farmiga is also magnificent at playing passive-aggressive. The fit she throws during dinner, complete with steely looks at Norman, conveys just the right amount of tension and hostility.
- The ‘timeless’ quality of the series proves to be a very interesting choice. In the Bates residence, there’s an intention to stay true to the era of the Hitchcock film, with the appliances, furniture etc. adhering to the time period. In contrast, the outside world couldn’t be more present day with a deliberate attempt to show iPods, modern cars and the like. In the same vein, the costuming of both Norma and Norman is also noteworthy, capturing that vintage feel while still feeling modern and relevant.
- I do appreciate how Norman is visibly sick and shaken at school the next day after disposing of Keith’s body. Although it is likely just a catalyst to introduce him to Emma (Olivia Cooke) I think it is a necessary moment to bring some credibility back into the mix.
What did you think, viewers? Does Bates Motel show enough promise to keep you tuned in? Do you think Norma killed Papa Bates? Any theories on how Dylan Bates (Max Thieriot) Norma’s estranged son, might fit in to the mix? Sound off in our comments section below.
Bates Motel airs at 10pm EST, Mondays on A&E.