It’s season finale time for A&E’s breakout drama, Bates Motel, a show we stopped covering early on. With the end of the season on hand, I figured I would check back in to see how the prequel finished up. Short version: calling this show a piece of garbage is a huge understatement.
Let’s bitch it out…
Well folks, looks like TVAngie made a good choice when she decided to drop this festering turd. Initially I thought she had made the wrong call by not giving Bates Motel a few more episodes to discover itself, but alas, no, this is a show that clearly knows what it is…and that is a terrible, predictable hot mess.
I will freely admit, prequels are a tough thing to do. There’s a lot to contend with: audience expectations, a known outcome and a sense of ownership by the audience who may be unwilling to go along with new stories of familiar properties. Few shows manage to strike the right balance, so it seemed that Bates Motel, in the early episodes, was simply going through some growing pains.
The writing and characterizations were, how to put this, a little off, but that was okay because of the nature of the show (we are talking about a very close mother-son relationship here, as well as the development of a future serial killer). The casting of actors Vera Farmiga (as Norma Bates) and Freddie Highmore (as iconic son, Norman) suggested that even weak plotting could be overcome; clearly, given enough time, the talent would elevate the material. Unfortunately as the series progressed it became clear that this was not the case.
In fact many other critics have argued that the series is actually several different shows crammed into one. Farmiga, in particular, seems to be in a completely different production, one characterized by campy overreactions and WTF character moments (my favourite moment in the finale occurs when Norma freaks out on a stranger in the street, calling him a “shit head” because he looks at her funny). It’s been quite the experience watching Norma chew her way through this first season and there’s plenty of debate to be had about whether Farmiga’s performance is a self-conscious acknowledgement of how terribly her character is written, or if – sadly – she’s just off the mark.
The contrast between acting styles is never more apparent than when Norma interacts with her eldest son, Dylan, played by Max Thierot. Thierot plays the material straight, which means he often comments on how insane Norma is (almost like an audience surrogate). The result of putting these two in the same scene has a televisual trainwreck quality that cannot be explained – it’s like watching two shows exploring the same topic spliced together.
Caught somewhere in the middle (much like his character) is Highmore, who often evens out the tone…unless he’s flying completely off the rocker (usually at Norma). In a show that’s subconsciously/overtly tackling mental illness, it is too inappropriate to suggest that these performances contain a certain amount of schizophrenia? The show we’re watching depends entirely on the character(s) grazing the screen at any given moment, which could be fun if it was a variety show and not a desperate Twin Peaks knock-off.
None of this is helped by the absolutely atrocious writing. Wacky, uninhibited performances I can take, but lazy plotting drives me crazy (not crazy like “kill your teacher or your father in a fugue state” crazy, but nearly!) Showrunners Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) have the kind of track record that suggests an occasional misstep (S3 for Cuse, S2 for Ehrin) but in general their respective shows have garnered a both acclaim and cultural potency.
I think we can safely say that the same argument will not be made for Bates Motel.
Plotlines and characters are picked up and dropped off with seemingly no regard for consistency (where did the pot pickers go? did the Asian girl really die in the woods? what did Mr. Martin do to deserve being burned alive?). On top of this, every single development is either batsh*t crazy, or completely predictable to the point of boredom.
Take the entire story with Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), which is so obviously telegraphed that the word “Victim” might as well be flashing over her head in neon red lights from the very first moment she appears on-screen (you’d be forgiven if you thought that Nicola Peltz’s stupidly named Bradley would get a cleaver in the head since she was the likely other candidate. Perhaps in S2?)
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Miss Watson’s dead body is the final image of the first season. The slow reveal, a languid tracking shot that seems to suggest the show is as bored with the turn of events as we are, is a laughable attempt at a cliffhanger; it’s hardly revelatory when everyone sees it coming. Ultimately ‘Midnight’ marks the end of a season of Bates Motel that failed to say anything new about Norma & Norman Bates, nor the “mysterious” (aka high crime) town of White Pine Bay to which they’ve moved.
- Considering the entire cast, Olivia Cooke (as Emma) is the real stand-out. She infuses Emma with a kooky, likable quality that not only made her easy to sympathize with, but also refused to characterize Emma the “disabled girl” on the show. We’re clearly meant to root for Emma to hook-up with Norman (even though he’s now a multiple-murderer) and Cooke plays the material in a way that makes her both unique, as well as familiar to the conventional teens we see on other shows. Here’s hoping she can find a role worthy of her considerable talents in the future and escape from this dreck
- On the flip side, it’s hard to celebrate much of anything in Peltz’s performance – though, again, much of this has to do with the writing. Bradley is meant to be a nice, but aloof popular girl – clearly the “wrong partner” for Norman. Naturally this is something that he doesn’t understand, which means we get episode after episode of Norman pining or looking wistfully at her from afar (barf). The sex scene between the two is one of the most confusing scenes of the entire season as it’s clearly filmed in an unrealistic, dream-like way (a romanticized version of sex that only Hollywood projects), which shockingly turns out to be real. This could have been a very interesting development, but instead of exploring it, Bradley mostly avoids Norman, strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Dylan and, in the most stereotypical of “teen” film scenes, lets her meat-head boyfriend Richard (Richard Harmon) beat Norman up at the dance (Sidenote: Yes, yes, I’m sure she didn’t know Richard was beating up Norman, but she’s not exactly an idiot, either). In the end, the obsession with the hot girl by the nerdy guy is hardly new and Bates Motel, once again, doesn’t seem to have anything to say about it that we haven’t heard before
- Initially I was quite excited to see what Mike Vogel would bring to the show as Deputy Shelby. And when he was simply Norma’s sympathetic boyfriend, he was solid. As soon as he became a generic stock-villain, however, the wheels immediately came off the rail (he basically went from zero to completely effin’ insane in a single episode in the least believable way possible). The whole prostitution/sex-trafficking storyline was so underdeveloped, so underwhelming and so obviously meant to be “shocking” that it simply ended up being silly and poorly constructed. Only Shelby’s ocular-gunshot death was kind of fun
- Imagine my excitement (*sarcasm*) when the storyline returned for these final episodes as Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown) and Shelby’s partner, Jake Abernathy aka Joe Fioretti (Jere Burns), turns up looking for money. I love that this final blackmail/stalking/murder-threat plotline, which was carried out over three episodes, was then dealt with in the most hilariously understated fashion as Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) simply shoots the man on the dock and walks away. Talk about an anti-climatic buzzkill
- Finally, did everyone like the awkward, ham-fisted way that Norma’s own incestuous past was revealed? I was especially fond of Emma asking Norma to hold her dress so that we could get a (clearly obvious) close-up of Norma’s burn that later plays an instrumental part in her abusive past. God, is that’s sh*tty writing! But hey – Norman killed his dead father with an iron as well, so clearly that’s, like, symmetry or something, right? At least that’s what it says in this “screenwriting for dummies” book that I borrowed from Cuse and Ehrin
In many ways ‘Midnight’ is the perfect season finale because it hits the reset button for the series. Come S2 Norma, Norman and Dylan will be back in hot water with another murder to cover up (poor Miss Watson, but that’s what you get for wearing slutty lingerie and picking up students). Norman will continue to bounce back and forth between Emma and Bradley (though Bradley will likely sleep with Dylan) and – naturally – the faintly-incestuous relationship between mother and son will continue (hopefully with more sleepovers! Blech)
What did you think of the first season? Were you as amazed at the discrepancy between the actors’ performances? Did anything legitimately shock you? Do you care at all about the pot growing storyline? How long until Bradley gets horizontal with Dylan? And how will the family Bates cover up sexy teacher’s death? Sound off below
Bates Motel has finished airing its first season. It will return to A&E, likely sometime in 2014