If you’ll ever have any hope of enjoying A&E’s new series, Bates Motel, you must get rid of the notion that a horrible blasphemy has been committed by creating a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie, Psycho. First of all, it’s not a new phenomenon; blasphemous prequels have been produced before.
Most recently, we saw it attempted with The Wizard of Oz (Oz the Great and Powerful). Second, it’s already been done with Psycho itself. Does anyone remember Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)?
The idea of a prequel is not necessarily a bad one in and of itself. However, it hinges on the subject matter: is the character or story compelling enough that we want/need to see an origin? In the case of Oz, the Wizard is one of the least interesting characters to me. A two-plus hour movie showing how a smarmy magician became “great and powerful” is absolutely unnecessary. But it’s hard to argue that Norman Bates is not a complex enough creation to warrant a study of how he came to be one of horror’s most notorious icons.
Even if a prequel can be justified, though, you then have to decide if it’s a story you want to see. When Rob Zombie revealed more about the past of Michael Myers in his Halloween remake, some fans argued that we did not need to know more about how and why he became a vicious killer. Doing so removes the mystery, these fans complained; it makes him less scary. I’m not opposed to doing it with Norman Bates. He’s more complex than Michael Myers. And he doesn’t just kill out of rage; he’s got unique psychological issues that trigger him to do it.
So, really, the issue with a television series like Bates Motel is not whether or not it should have been made in the first place. Instead, the issue is: can the story be sustained as a series instead of as a movie (or even a limited mini-series)? After watching Monday night’s pilot, I have to say… I don’t know. Bates Motel makes a good case that it’s possible; however, you can’t really judge its long-term chances for success by only one episode.
I will say that, with one exception, the cast is terrific. Freddie Highmore is a nearly perfect incarnation of 17-year old Norman as played by Anthony Perkins. Although his British accent sometimes rears its annoying head, his mannerisms and movements are spot-on without being an impersonation. And Vera Farmiga is a great casting choice for Norma (Mrs. Bates). I feel like it’s her character, not Highmore’s, who is going to be more interesting in the series. It helps that we don’t know as much about her as we do about her son.
The one exception is Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Alex Romero. He seems unnecessarily suspicious of something at this early point in the story and, so far, seems like he may be miscast. Perhaps this is intentional. It would be nice if there’s more to learn about his character. Perhaps he’s also carrying a secret.
The pilot begins with the death of Norman’s father, perhaps by mysterious circumstance, although it doesn’t seem that the series wants to focus on that. Instead, it’s a catalyst for getting Norma to buy a foreclosed motel so that she and her son can start a new life. It’s great to see the old house on the hill and the jagged staircase leading up to it from the familiar motel, home of future horrors. The rest of the pilot plays out as you might suspect, including our first glimpse of a particular motel room and its infamous shower.
Bates Motel doesn’t focus on witty nods to Psycho, though, and I think that’s a wise decision. In fact, it steers clear of several possible clichés. For example, Norman’s the new kid at school. He’s obviously “different”. You expect that he will be bullied, fall in love with the popular girl and then inspire a violent act from her jock boyfriend. Instead, the perception of him being different becomes one of the pilot’s most interesting (even poignant) concepts. He does sort of fall for a pretty girl, but she (and her boyfriend) are legitimately nice to him, as are all the pretty girls, helping him escape the confines of his new home for a little R-and-R disguised as “studying”.
The weakness of Bates Motel as a long-running series may be that the pilot barely presents anything new to expand the mythology or promise intrigue for upcoming episodes. Norman finds an odd book under the carpet in a motel room and one of its images appears to be coming to life, but so little time is allotted to them that it’s too soon to tell if there are interesting stories behind them. Potentially more entertaining is the idea that Norman has an older brother. Is that who called Norma at the new house before she hung up the phone? Does he also have mommy issues?
I may feel differently after watching a couple more episodes, but after the pilot, I’m fairly gung-ho for Bates Motel. It could certainly be worse. In 1987, there was also a pilot called Bates Motel. It starred Bud Court (Harold and Maude) as a roommate of Norman’s from the insane asylum. When Norman dies, he inherits the motel, moves in and strange things begin happening. There’s a reason that one never went to series. But right now, it feels promising that this Bates Motel did.