Of all the basic cable networks, A&E's existence has always struck me as the most regrettable. The former home of Biography and culture is now a slum of Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. Over the last few years, though, hope has begun to rise from a different quarter--- original programming.
In the business for more than a decade, A&E's attempts are mainly fascinating failures like 100 Centre Street, Nero Wolfe and Prison Kings. But last year, they came up with an interesting spin on an old chestnut--- a reboot of Norman Bates' childhood. Bates Motel tells the story of teenage Norman's life. The most talked about performance of this show is that of Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates--- Mother. It is not easy to rise above one of the most famous characters in all of entertainment history (even if we did only know her as a corpse), but Farmiga, one of the most criminally undervalued actresses in all of Hollywood has managed to elevate and give this younger version of Mrs. Bates a life of her own. Trying desperately to support her family in Bayville, Norma clearly seems a little trouble and easy to anger--- but she clearly cares for her sons (we'll get to that in a minute) and she has an energy and spirit that you wouldn't expect. Farmiga has elevated her already formidable skills that she manages to do something nearly impossible in a show like this---- make you forget her eventual fate.
And there are clues things are not going to go well. As you expect, Norman (British child actor Freddie Highmore, nearly as good as Farmiga) has been having a very troubled time of it in high school. He has a lot of trouble relating to his peers (big surprise), but it's interesting to see that they have troubles of their own. One girl already attempt suicide in the pilot, and after she left an institution, she killed the man who she thought murdered her father, and has since disappeared, and is presumed dead. A girl who works in the motel is forever carrying around an oxygen tank, and seems forever occupied with morbidity. Then there's his older brother, Dylan. Involved in the seedy underworld that seems to pervade this town, he now seems trapped in a maze that seems to get deeper no matter who he works for and who he tries to save.
The series is rather convoluted, and its mythos will be hard to follow for those joining late, and who have only the vaguest idea of the plot of Psycho. (The bypass story is vital to the motel's eventual fate, but not having seen the movie in a while, it may be hard to figure out why.) But the performances of Farmiga and Highmore are so good that they tower over a series that often tries to exceed in humble roots. But on a network deluged with police procedurals (original and reality) it's a welcome tonic. Maybe there's a future for A&E yet (though maybe not such as a good one for the Bates'.)
My score: 3.5 out of 5 stars