In the original “Psycho” (1960) Norman Bates famously quips, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” So much of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, including famous lines like that, are now so known that they almost play comically. To do something serious with the universally known story of Norman Bates and his legendary mother fixation in today’s cynical times would be truly something. Well, fellow horror fans, that’s precisely what A & E’s new TV-series “Bates Motel” has done. It’s a nuanced origins story that treats its source material earnestly and reinvents it smartly for a modern audience.
The character of Norman Bates has always struck me as a pitiable one. He’s a monster, yes, but the woman who put the mother in smothering made him that way. Here, we get to see her in action, as a well-meaning but controlling woman who can be tender and loving one moment and then become manipulative and hard the next. Watching Norman here (Freddie Highmore), struggle to be his own man as he closes in on age 18, is moving and an idea that should sustain the series for some time. And it proves that bringing one of the film world’s icons to television was a shrewd idea. (http://exm.nr/15RStoO)
The show opens with Norman’s father dying in the garage. Norman discovers the body and his reactionary panic suggests that he’s not only overly sensitive, but may be a little psychotic as well. His father’s death appears to be from a heart attack, but it’s hard to know for sure. (Perhaps we’ll find out more about what really happened in subsequent episodes. I hope, I hope!) But that death in the family is enough to inspire Norman's restless mom Norma (Vera Farmiga) to impulsively pack up and move them to California to run a roadside wreck of a motel.
Norman wants to help her, but he also wants to just be a regular teen. He’s tired of moving and wants to feel connected to someone other than her. And early on here, it looks like he might succeed. A number of comely girls at his new school find him attractive. A caring teacher encourages him to take up track. And his aptitude tests show great promise. But his mom resents him having other interests. He’s all she has, so of course she’s possessive. Then when the previous owner of the hotel rapes her in a drunken rage, it’s Norman who comes to her rescue and their bond solidifies further. Then when she kills the rapist with a kitchen knife, Norma gets her son to help dispose of the body which renders their seal unbreakable.
The makers of this show don’t shy away from showing the rape, or the emotional fallout afterwards. It's a gutsy show. Nor do they avoid some of the more eyebrow raising aspects of the material, including Norman’s attraction to his alluring mother. He spies her undressing one night, seeing her in only bra and panties. He should look away but doesn’t and the suggestion of the incest to follow is unflinching and rather shocking for basic cable.
The makers of “Bates Motel” wisely stay away from any aping of the original too, knowing that such a thing could create easy tittering in its viewers. Instead, they only pay homage through some visual references like using Hitchcockian overhead shots here and there and showing a body lying dead in the shower. Some of Highmore’s personal tics recall Anthony Perkins and his performance from the original. (I wrote about that landmark in film here: http://exm.nr/LOCHUQ) But by and large, Highmore finds his own take on the material. He’s quieter, shyer, and slighter in physique and manner than Perkins was.
And Farmiga does absolute wonders with her complex role. We don’t know much about Mrs. Bates from the original “Psycho”, other than the psychiatrist’s appraisal in the denouement. After all, she was only a corpse in the movie. But here Mrs. Bates is a strong, ambitious, and caring woman, striving for something better for her family, and longing to escape a run of bad luck. (She’s got an older, deadbeat son who she’s disowned, and the previews promise quite the fireworks when he shows up to pester her.)
Farmiga can play breezy (“Up in the Air”), gloomy (“Higher Ground”), even authoritarian (“Time Code”), and here she gets to play all three. She brings such depth and tragedy to the role, that you’re rooting for her even though you know she’s only going to bring more ruin to their lives.
The future nine episodes, which will Monday nights at 9 PM Central Time, promise a lot more mystery, menace and murder. Who is being shot up with drugs in the first episode’s closing shot? Why does Norma fall into a sexual affair with the town’s deputy? And which of the high school love interests will capture Norman’s heart? Or will he only have eyes for his mom? It’s a lot to look forward to, a much more dangerous dance than anything over at ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars”. If you love your horror driven by complex characters, psychological thrills and cleverly plotted storytelling, check into the “Bates Motel”. Just avoid the shower if you know what’s good for you.