A&E’s 'Bates Motel' dares to go where even Hitchcock left alone: into the formative years of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) to look at his life, even if not quite his mind, to learn just what made him snap and start killing all of those people. But Bates Motel can’t seem to find itself, let alone its horror, in the pilot episode, leaving us to wonder why we’d want to watch week after week of failures and missteps, that in the end, only lead to the degradation of some kid anyway. We’re not that sadistic, but furthermore, the show doesn’t take a clear enough stance in its first impression, let alone leave a hauntingly memorable mark.
As previously reported, Bates Motel is not meant to be a direct prequel but instead to draw new versions of Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates. But it’s new versions are not nearly as strong as the versions we have grown up knowing—the ones that have become so iconic and what one thinks of when one thinks of quintessential, classic psychological horror. It is tempting, then, to just fill in the massive void of Bates Motel with what we know from Hitchcock. Though that is unfair to Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin’s tale, the other option is to turn off their version completely because it just does not ignite a spark the way in which it needs to.
Bates Motel is clunky and does not exhibit a clear point of view. It starts seeming like a period piece—with the dusty old furniture and dated clothes and classic car—but then shows off modern conveniences like iPhones and stereotypically sexually aggressive teenage girls who may "corrupt" young Norman's introverted mind. These only get pulled out as convenient devices to move the plot along or push get a character to a new location. It’s sloppy and cheap, and the sense of nostalgia that the pilot generally seems to be going for is lost the instant we see any of them. If only that were the one nitpick we found we'd let it go, but honestly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Norman is old-fashioned and quiet in ways that make him socially awkward, but it is hard to gather just how much this affects him—or is even noticed by others around him—since everyone relates to him better than one would expect in today’s modern world. He’s the new kid in not the coolest clothes, but rather than get picked on, the girls overtly flirt with him in a way that an actually antisocial person might dream of happening-- but which never actually would. Forget fully fleshed out, they are not believable as real people at all. Except for the iPhones and liberal use of “no worries,” the world around him doesn’t seem that modern at all, and that’s a shame because a stark contrast between the modern day world and buttoned-up Norman would go a long way to punctuating just how stunted he actually is.
The world of Bates Motel sits squarely on the shoulders of both Bates characters, but the show doesn't take a strong hand to penning either one of them as fully formed either. We're all for subtly, but to dive into the complexity with this particular relationhip, we found ourselves having to read between the lines and fill in gaps in the story with what we already know from the earlier, other retelling. That isn't fair to this telling of the Bates' family's tale, but without doing so, the pilot would have just left us with two characters who both had a lot of potential to be aggressive and violent-- but with whom the writers appeared afraid to "go there" too soon.
Bates Motel’s Norma is not abusive. She has some strict and overbearing rules, especially for a modern-day teenager, but her relationship with her son reads more as sitcom style naggy but still well-meaning than overly manipulative or cunning. She has a perfect opportunity to lay a real guilt trip on him in the middle of the pilot, and she doesn’t do it. The brutally violent scene bestowed upon her would have been the perfect thing for such a controlling mother figure to hold over her son, tormenting him with the guilt of being unable to help—but none of that conflict is in play here. There is no turning point; there is no strong action of any kind. While we understand this version of Norma is not supposed to be so clearly undercutting, she just seems so muted overall it makes the show, not just her character, look weak.
Farmiga plays her Norma cold but quiet in a way that hints danger is lurking under her surface but does not commit to it. The pilot in general just doesn’t want to commit to anything—whether Norma’s crazy, or whether Norman is; whether their closeness borders on unhealthy; whether Norman’s has had a killer lurking in him all along or whether it will be drawn out of him. Highmore’s Norman is filled with typical teenage angst and attempts at Perks of Being a Wallflower type soundbytes; he is adept at wearing Norman’s emotions on his sleeve, for better or for worse-- for a sociopath, though, that’s for worse since sociopaths don’t feel most true emotions. There is something sad and almost forced in his smile that perfectly captures the image of young Norman we’ve had in our heads for years, though.
The nature versus nurture aspect of such extreme personalities and characters is always a fascinating psychological study, but Bates Motel’s characters are just not interesting or consistent enough in the pilot episode to enjoy formulating a hypothesis and watching it play out with the ability to analyze later. We were left desperate to justify the diluted mother/son moments and even ended up considering the idea that the motel itself could be what influences Norman, The Shining style (the title certainly implies it; if it were really all about Norman’s internal psyche, the show should be simply called Norman or the sitcom-y Growing Up Bates), because the real clues just weren’t presently strongly enough to shine through. Worse than the writers not wanting to explicitly, outwardly commit to a number of the psychological aspects in the pilot, it honestly felt more like they didn’t yet know which way they wanted to go—and therefore may just make much of it up as they go. Television today is embracing the psychological thriller more than ever, and Bates Motel *should* be a star in that genre, but unless it steps up its pacing and truly defines its characters, Norman Bates is not going to grow up to be a notorious serial killer but just a run-of-the-mill, kind of weird guy. No one wants to watch stories about regular people these days!
Bates Motel premieres on A&E on March 18th 2013 at 10 p.m.
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