TV Recap: Bates Motel, Series Premiere

justin matchick will not be showering at the Bates Motel …

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There is one question I had to ask myself when confronted with Bates Motel. Why does this exist? Was anyone really asking for a show that tells us about the world of Norman Bates and his mother Norma long before Marion Crane comes upon the motel with $40,000 in stolen money? Apparently there was at least one person who thought this was a good idea, show co-creator and former LOST producer Carlton Cuse.

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Bates Motel has the odd distinction of being both a prequel and a reboot at the same time. While the show does still tell us the story of Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother before the events of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho, it is set in present day instead of the 1940s and 50s. In one way, this allows the show to be able to branch out on its own and add a bit more to the story of Norman and his mother. But if the show winds up going down too divergent of a path with Norman and Norma, then one just has to wonder why they even needed to have this set within the Psycho universe at all (the answer is of course that TV executives have little faith in totally original series these days and want a pre-established fanbase to milk dry, but I digress).

The show begins in earnest with Norman and Norma heading to the Seafairer Motel six months after the death of Norma’s husband. Norma has just bought the Seafairer and wants to renovate it into a new motel in an effort to get a new start on life. Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed) play Norman and Norma respectively. Both are talented actors, having made their mark and proved themselves many times over, but here they are at the mercy of a lackluster script that decides to forgo any of the horror or suspense that made the original film famous and instead give us scene after scene of banal family drama.

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Instead of showing Norman as simply a younger version of the deranged murderer he would one day become, Bates Motel portrays him as a just slightly off-kilter teen that is for some reason surprisingly quick to make friends at his new high school. Seriously, Norman Bates seems to literally make friends with popular kids at the drop of a hat on this show. No signs of the creepy man who thought of his mother as his best friend here. His first day waiting at the bus stop, Norman is approached by four beautiful classmates and is almost immediately invited to ride along with them in their friend’s convertible. Here we have one of the most famous murderers in motion picture history looking like he’s in the deleted scenes of High School Musical.

While Norman seems to have no trouble making friends, his relationship with his mother is still strained. His personal interests, including trying out for the school track team, clashes with his mother’s efforts to get the motel up and running. Farmiga does a good job of showing Norma as someone trying their hardest to keep her stability even when it seems like the only world she knows, her family, is coming undone. There is an underlying sense of creepy incest in their relationship; something only briefly touched upon in this episode that I’m sure will wind up playing out as the show goes on.

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Norma runs into further problems with the motel when former owner Keith Summers angrily confronts her, saying the motel should rightfully be his even after the bank foreclosed on him. Later that night Norman sneaks out of the house after he and Norma get into a fight over how controlling she is, unknowingly leaving her all alone. This is when Summers decides to break into the house and proceeds to beat and rape Norma. Norman of course comes back in time to stop it, but by that point Bates Motel had already gone so far off the rails it’s almost impossible to come back. Psycho was able to give a far more disturbing and effective backstory to Norman and his mother in about five minutes, and that’s without ever resorting to a full onscreen portrayal of a violent rape.

Bates Motel hardly works as a prequel/reboot of Psycho and I doubt it would have done any better had it been a totally original series. There are hints and glimpses of the infamous shower at the motel or the staircase in the Bates house that only remind the viewer they could much better spend their time watching the original Psycho instead of drudging through a show as unfulfilling as this. Psycho is an unmitigated classic, one of the greatest horror films of all time. The films infamous reputation has survived years of cheap and crappy sequels throughout the ’80s as well as the bizarre Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake in the ’90s, and it will surely survive this. Bates Motel is completely unnecessary, and even after watching the first hour I still couldn’t figure out what exactly the point of it all was. Do yourself a favor and find a copy of Psycho to watch sometime this week, I guarantee you’ll have a better time with that.