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Horror and heartbreak make ‘Bates Motel’ a big hit

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Bates Motel

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A & E has a big hit on their hands with their Monday night series “Bates Motel”. Now nearing the end of its second 10-episode season, the revisionist take on the classic Hitchcock movie “Psycho” has been renewed for a third season. It finds new thrills and chills in the well-known story of Norman Bates, and it continues to delve deeper into the psychological origins of the serial killer. Even more, it makes this monster understandable and worthy of our sympathy.

“The Walking Dead” is a more violent show. “American Horror Story” tends to be more outrageous. And “Hannibal” contains more disturbing horror. But “Bates Motel” has all three and it has something that those others don’t have. The story of Norman and his smothering mother has heart. The kind worn on a sleeve, not the kind ripped from a chest.

“Bates Motel” tells its Norman Bates origins story, updated to modern times, in a way that is highly unusual for the horror genre. It creates loads of sympathy for its 'baddies'. Norma, Norman’s passive/aggressive mother, has moved her troubled family to a Northwestern coastal town to start anew. She thinks she’s found a Shangri-La by way of “Mayberry RFD” but it’s more like “Twin Peaks”. Week in and week out of the show, she and Norman find that despite their sins, the town is much, much more evil.

How bad is it? The town’s main income is pot and there are warring factions of drug lords battling over the traffic. The law can’t help because the sheriff is on the take. Even the local political figures are immersed in so much corruption Frank Underwood of “House of Cards” would blush.

Norma (Vera Farmiga) just wants to run her roadside motel, make a profit, and provide a stable environment for her erratic son. Norman (Freddie Highmore) just wants to be a normal teenager. The town of White Pine Bay, Oregon however, refuses to let them have it that easy. In the first two seasons, Norma has already had to deal with rape, robbery, the return of troubled family members, and her motel rooms being used for things like sex trafficking and drug dealing. How is a working mom supposed to provide a fit home for her child from such a cesspool?

Norman (Freddie Highmore) has his set of woes too. He lost his virginity to a selfish local girl who callously dumped him. Classmates, various town residents and his mother continually rag on him. His wayward stepbrother gets into fisticuffs with him every couple of episodes. And Norman has psychological problems that don’t bode well for anyone. He has rage issues, suffers blackouts, and may very well have murdered his favorite high school teacher in one of those foggy states. And this season, he’s starting to channel his mother. What a drag.

Yet despite all of that melodrama, the show stays quite grounded. It never reaches the cartoonish excesses that some nighttime soaps lapse into, like “Revenge” or “Scandal”. And Norma and Norman always retain our sympathy. Farmiga and Highmore create such rich, fully dimensional characters that the audience never loses the connection to them even when their behavior turns awful. It's doing something right as the ratings stay strong, averaging 3 million viewers per episode, a large number for cable. And its DVR viewership averages another 1.6 million on top of that (http://bit.ly/1eOpwDc).

It’s also a show that is remarkably poignant. How many horror stories can you say that about? When Norma or Norman becomes entangled in violence, the horror of it is heartbreaking. The Bates’ may be antiheroes, but they are also two of the most sympathetic ‘monsters’ in the genre since King Kong. Secondary characters are fully realized and dignified as well, particularly the cystic fibrosis stricken Emma (Olivia Cooke) who pines for Norman and carts around an oxygen tank, yet is never played for ridicule.

There is a respect for the characters and its Hitchcockian history even in all of the show's consumer touch points. In fact, the cheekiest the show gets is the occasional sly visual reference to the movie, like when a victim falls down the stairs echoing Martin Balsam's demise, or in its offering of special Mother’s Day gifts on the A & E website (http://bit.ly/QhBERW).

Just as it was for Janet Leigh's character in the movie, this new Bates Motel is a destination that provides no real sanctuary. It is more of a haunted house - haunted by its residents’ past, the corruption of the town around, and the foreboding of evil that we all know will keep on coming as Norman sinks deeper into depravity. And with its terrific ratings and strong critical reception, A & E will likely keep the Bates Motel open for many years to come. If you check in, you'll be on the edge of your seats. And a tear or two may appear in your eyes as well.

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