"Bates Motel" Series Premiere Review and Recap
First You Dream, Then You Die
Much like history channel, A&E is attempting to establish its relevancy again by revisiting television shows with substance and meaning. Once upon a time, the A&E network was a channel producing Emmy-winning mini-series’, film and arts analysis and was considered by many to be a channel with some artistic merit. In the past decade, A&E has fallen under the reality television spell with tripe like Dog The Bounty Hunter, Gene Simmons: Family Jewels, Growing Up Gotti and Chris Angel: Mindfreak.
Things have changed though. People are bored of reality television’s same-old formula and audiences are beginning to long for real dialogue, character development, story direction, etc. History Channel proved it is possible to rise back up after the huge fall from grace with its recent release of instant-hit, “Vikings.” So, now A&E is ready to rid itself of the reality-television plague and re-enter the world of hard-hitting television with a new take on an old Alfred Hitchcock classic (Psycho, 1960). Of course, I’m referring to the story of an iconic knife wielding, cross-dressing maniac that seems ready-made for success. Revisiting a classic can be a tricky thing though; the past is littered with failures and only a select few triumphs.
The show is “Bates Motel,” and it’s a prequel to the original story of Norman Bates, a man who eventually commits matricide after developing a co-dependence with his domineering and psychologically-troubled mother. I must admit, I’m a sucker for prequels; especially when the original was such a groundbreaking masterpiece. Writer Carlton Cuse gets a chance to explore the untold story of how Norman Bates became the split-personality killer in Psycho. This is a chance or a curse of a lifetime as Psycho is on virtually every greatest movie shortlist in existence. There’s an audience waiting to watch, but they will judge harshly. Hitchock left some big shoes to fill.
The show opens up with a young Norman Bates, played by Freddie Highmore (August Rush, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), being awoken by a scene from the film, His Gal Friday, (1940) playing on the television. If you examine the dialogue of the particular scene that is playing, the foreshadowing and alluding to the trouble ahead for Norman and his mother is strongly illustrated (Norman Bates’ mother’s name is Norma Bates. Hopefully, that isn’t too confusing). Norman gets out of bed and ventures to the basement to discover his father dead in an apparent accident of some kind. He runs upstairs and screams and bangs on the door until his mother answers with body language that screams guilt (I’m guessing she murdered him and staged an accident). In the scene, Norma (his mother) seems unbothered by her husband’s death and more concerned with her son’s misery over losing his dad.
From there, Norman and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga, The Departed), are on a drive to their new life as motel-owners in an unnamed small town in Oregon (it was never completely clear in the movie exactly where the Bates Motel was located). She begins her domination over her son by moving to a new place without asking him. When they arrive at the new house/motel, she continues her domineering ways by putting herself in a room right next to Norman when he was clearly excited about having the bigger room farther away from her.
There are a few qualms I have with the show. It’s set in modern times (yet somehow before the original story) and the location does not fit the original story either. It’s not anything that can’t be ignored as long as the new angle works. Speaking in technical terms, the actual Psycho story never attached itself to any particular time or location (although the book and movie both state that the Bates Motel was on the way to California from Arizona. The new story is sticking to the Bates’ being from Arizona). In this case, I think the negligence of minor details might just be a writer adding his touch to the story.
I really have to say that Norman Bates was quite the ladykiller (not literally yet, no puns there). He doesn’t even appear to be trying and within living in this new town for a few days, he had a group of girls all swoon over him, an adult teacher flirt with him (call me crazy, — she was throwing him a vibe. That went way past consoling) and the popular guy’s girlfriend to put moves on him behind her boyfriend’s back. I wouldn’t be surprised if this show was building to something that made Bates the delusional sadist (with women in particular) he eventually ends up becoming.
When he gets home after trying out for the track team, his mother immediately scolds him for being late. When he apologetically explains and tries to get her to sign a permission slip to join the track team, she guilts him into thinking that he is being selfish She storms off angrily after signing the slip. Later on outside the house, Norman runs into a drunken, crazed local and former owner of the Bates’ newly acquired property. The house has been in his family for many years and he takes them buying it more than personal. After a few heated words between Norma and the local, she threatens him. He drives off angrily and we are left to wonder what will happen with that.
The girls that are crushing on Norman come over to invite him out to “study.” His mom weirdly turns them down for him with Norman’s body language strongly suggesting he wants to do the contrary. Once again, a strong look at Norman’s dysfunctional relationship with his controlling mother. He later sneaks out and the local drunk/former hotel-owner from earlier breaks in the Bates’ house, ready to do terrible things. After a struggle, he duct tapes Norma’s mouth, handcuffs her and proceeds to rape her (it’s a tough scene to watch, even for basic cable). Norman then walks in and hits him over the head with a blunt object, knocking the intruder unconscious. Norman leaves the room to retrieve a first-aid kit (his mother’s hand was cut) and the intruder awakes. He gets up, looks Norma dead in the eyes and says, “you liked it.” She becomes possessed with rage and stabs him repeatedly to death. This is how Norma and her son, Norman, become partners in crime.
With ice water running through her veins, Norma concocts a plan to the hide the body in one of the hotel rooms until they can properly dispose of it. She then makes her son help her carry the body to one of the hotel rooms, and a bloodstain is left on the carpet during the transferring of the body. She then makes Norman pull up carpeting until 2 a.m. (poor kid, manual labor in the middle of the night) to take care of the huge blood stain the intruder/rapist left in the carpet. While tearing up the carpet, Norman comes across a notebook (he later looks in it to find drawings of women being tortured).
Norma Bates walks outside to find a suspicious sheriff (Nestor Carbonell, The Dark Knight Rises) and a clueless deputy snooping around. After the sheriff asks Norma a few questions, he notices her hand is badly cut. She offers up a half-hearted explanation and the sheriff asks to take a look around. He narrowly misses finding the dead intruder’s body while using the bathroom (he was in the bath tub, hidden behind the shower curtain). The bird’s eye view of him in the bathroom, a mere inches away from a dead body, was a creative way to convey how close the Bates' were to getting caught.
The episode ended with the Bates' putting the body in the trunk of a car and dumping it in a lake (I found it interesting as there were a few different references to lakes in the premiere). While dumping the body, Norman pours his heart out to his mother about his genuine feelings of love for her. I felt that this just drove home the unusual nature of their relationship as well as demonstrated the amount of control Norma has over her son (Norman clearly loves his mom unconditionally). I’m sure it will only get more prevalent as the series goes on.
This show looks as if it will shape up to be a strange mother-son love/hate relationship with creepy Oedipal overtones (take it easy Freudians, I don’t think they are literal — more metaphorical). I noticed that the surviving motif from the original movie seems to be water. I really like that they are putting new spins on things as well as keeping pieces of the original.
This show is loaded with potential; it makes sense that A&E would skip the pilot testing and go straight to ordering a ten-episode season. After viewing the series premiere, it is also clear to me why it debuted at record numbers for the channel (over 3 million viewers). So, after everything, I’m sure readers are wondering if “Bates Motel” is worth a watch? I’d be psycho to tell you it isn’t.