A&E’s Bates Motel delivers all kinds of creepy in its first episode

Bates Motel neon

The new prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, A&E’s new series Bates Motel, is all sorts of unsettling, creepy and jarring.  First of all it has you cheering for Norman.  And you can’t help feel a little wrong about that.  We come to the re-introduction of the Bates Motel and that house–the original old house used to film Psycho–and its odd inhabitants, and recall that this was the first of the film villains that didn’t look like a traditional villain, making Psycho that much scarier.

Bates Motel, the series, is jarring in many ways.  Film actress Vera Farmiga (The Departed, The Manchurian Candidate, Source Code) with a bit of Psycho’s 1960 Vera Miles look, has an incredible role here to make her own as Norman’s mother Norma Bates.  In episode one “Nice Town You Picked, Norma,” Farmiga really dives right in.  One minute she’s a great, doting mom, happy and gleeful.  The next she is very dark and cold, spinning guilt trips onto her son at his every move.  Norma and son Norman–what is in a name?  There’s something at the core of their relationship the writers apparently haven’t scratched the surface with yet–they’re a little too close.  Viewers get some glimpses at a Mommie Dearest character in the making.  A school populated only by pretty girls who keep flocking around the nerdy Norman seems like a set-up for Norman as Stephen King’s Carrie.

Norman and Norma at soon to be Bates Motel

One episode in and we already have two dead bodies.  And a bloody shower scene.

Jarring in other ways is the juxtaposition of 1950s/1960s era furniture, Norma’s clothes, and the odd hairdos (both Norman and his teacher’s) in a story set in the present day.  So instantly you’re left asking how this is a prequel to a film where Norman grows up to talk to his dead mother and kill people who stay at his motel in the black and white era.  So maybe that doesn’t matter–maybe the future is open-ended, like Star Trek 2009, some kind of parallel timeline.  Maybe Norman won’t take the path of Anakin Skywalker and somehow end up a good guy instead of Darth Vader, a seemingly good egg that doesn’t later suffer from some complex paranoid, multiple personality psychoses.  Not likely.  At least in episode one the actions of Norma and Norman are justifiable.  Unless we’re supposed to think Norma killed her husband for insurance money to move away with her namesake to buy a hotel on the wrong side of a small town.  Either way, it’s not 1960 anymore, and today’s producers are likely to amp up the violence, horror, and blood.

Bates Motel poster

And what about the secrets the violent former owner (played by genre character actor W. Earl Brown) mentions about the motel?  Is the house and hotel haunted or the occupants, past and present, just crazy?  And for that matter, isn’t everyone in this town just a little off, Norman included?  Though he seems like the least strange of the bunch.

Bates Motel screencap

But the key win of Bates Motel is Norman.  Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Golden Compass) could hardly be better cast as young Norman.  “Yes, Mother.”  He’s got the mannerisms and Anthony Perkins’ quiet voice and demeanor down.  And right up front he is clearly the victim, and the analogy to Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace could not be more apt.  Viewers have to cheer this kid on, yet you know it is futile.  This kid is doomed.  Do we really want to watch the train wreck happen each week?

Look for Continuum first season actor Richard Harmon playing a deputy sheriff to Nestor Carbonell’s (Lost, Psych, Ringer, The Dark Knight, House, M.D.) sheriff.

C.J. Bunce

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