Bates Motel debuts tonight on A&E at 10 p.m. Eastern.
At times, Bates Motel feels like Gilmore Girls with less humor and more murder. That, sadly, makes the series sound more appealing than it actually is, when the actual experience of watching it is seeing a bunch of very talented people flail blindly at something that’s probably just not a very good idea in the first place. There are a lot of awesome people involved in Bates Motel, but they’re all there in service of a prequel to a movie that doesn’t really need one. Prequels are almost always dramatically inert because their default mode is explaining. For instance, when this series’ Norman wanders into a room full of taxidermied animals, the hope is that the audience will be enthralled for several seasons to come, as it watches the young boy learn how to kill and stuff animals. Instead, the response is, “Oh, that’s how the taxidermy comes into play. Well, I never need to see that again.”
To be sure, there are fleeting moments when Bates Motel becomes an awesomely entertaining suspense machine. In particular, the closing 15 minutes or so of the third episode offer up some wonderfully eerie moments, as the young Norman gets into a stupid situation of his own making and has to come up with a way out of it. These are among the few moments in the series so far that suggest there’s a proper story to tell here or, at least, a way to navigate around the fact that this is a prequel to Psycho and, thus, has to end in a very specific place. A show about a young, budding murderer and his unhealthy relationship with his mother could make for interesting TV, no matter the relation to other properties. Maybe there’s room here for a story, for a workplace drama about opening a motel, say, or a small town show with spooky elements in the peripheral vision. Bates Motel is usually strongest when it doesn’t foreground the Psycho connection.
The biggest problem, then, is that for all of the talented people working on the show, nobody can wrestle the weird tonal issues to the ground. For instance, tonight’s first episode features Norman and his mother Norma moving to a small town to buy a motel and turn it into their chance to escape the dark shadows of the past. So far, so good, particularly as the series luxuriates in the often campy performance of Vera Farmiga as Norma (or, as you might know her, Mother). There’s a weirdly timeless quality to the show, as it’s steeped in out-of-date appliances, fashions, and classic movies on the ancient TV, even as it resolutely takes place in the present. Norman even listens to an iPod. The show’s small town setting is similarly well-realized, feeling for all the world like one of those sleepy towns in the long drive between San Francisco and Portland, where the laid back vibe seems to roll in with the Pacific fog.
Then there’s a horrifying, brutally depicted scene of sexual assault, and all those good, creepy vibes go out the window.
Now, obviously, any show that depicts the adolescence of Norman Bates is going to have some dark, icky stuff in it, and there’s going to be a need for some sort of compulsion to commit violence against sexually attractive women to sneak in there at some point. But this puts the series in a bit of a bind. Violence against women is one of TV’s most predictable, least dramatically needed crutches. It drives far too many procedurals and horror shows, because there’s something primal about seeing an attractive woman in danger. At a certain point, it becomes degrading and offensive. At a certain point past that, it becomes arbitrary and kind of boring. Weirdly, the sexual assault in the Bates Motel pilot checks off all of these boxes. It’s so brutally depicted that it violates whatever subtle tone the series was going for to that point, thus making it feel degrading and offensive, even as it feels so easy as a storytelling point that it becomes boring and arbitrary. Really? This was the only way anyone could think of to accomplish what the series was going for?
From there, the series has a complicated relationship with violence against women. Again, there’s an element of this inherent in the property this is based on, but the series—at least through three episodes—is never able to break free of the thought that this is simply a constraint placed upon the show. When Norman Bates kills Marion Crane in Psycho, it’s horrifying. When a teenaged Norman Bates imagines his attractive teacher bound and tied up in sexual positions, it’s… well, who knows what it’s supposed to be. Terrifying? Vaguely erotic? An insight into Norman’s subconscious? Just another example of how the series is stifled by having to pay homage to one of the best movies ever made? That it succeeds in fulfilling none of these tones suggests the series’ Achilles’ heel.
To be honest, the first three episodes don’t really work, but there’s enough in them that plenty of viewers will be enticed to keep watching. They come close enough to working that when those final 15 minutes roll around, it’s hard not to want to see how episode four opens. Most of this is thanks to the talented people in front of and behind the camera. The head writer on the series is Kerry Ehrin, most famously of Friday Night Lights, and if she seems like an odd choice to bring a horror series to the small screen, she’s also not afraid to let the show indulge on moody atmosphere and weird small town moments, which end up being some of the stronger moments in the first three episodes. (Some curmudgeons will complain the first two hours are slow; I’d rather they be slow and tonally consistent than burdened by out-of-nowhere shifts into sexual violence, just to make the plot spin forward.) The other executive producer here is Carlton Cuse, best known for Lost, and some of that moodiness is almost certainly attributable to him as well, as the series is often a reminder of how hushed and spooky that earlier show could be in its first few seasons.
The casting is also spot-on. When Farmiga isn’t forced to say terrible dialogue, she’s often a hoot, finding creepy laughs in lines where one wouldn’t expect them. As Norman, Freddie Highmore takes a bit to adjust to the learning curve of having to step into Anthony Perkins’ shoes—he seems rather flat in the first episode, and his accent isn’t wholly convincing—but he finds his way by that third episode. Nestor Carbonell pops in to play the Nestor Carbonell role, but he’s good at that sort of thing. There are even some compelling figures at Norman’s high school, like Olivia Cooke as a cystic fibrosis suffering girl named Emma who takes a shine to Norman. (There’s a surprisingly charming exchange between Cooke and Farmiga in the second episode that suggests a more straightforward small town show that might have been.) Hell, Norman even has a more traditional teen girl suitor named Bradley (Nicola Peltz) who has some compelling shades of her own. And as the most significant addition to the Bates mythology, a character who doesn’t entirely work, Max Thierot has his moments.
The problem, then, is that Bates Motel is simply overburdened by the reason it exists. Film and TV have gotten incredibly risk-averse in recent years, choosing to come up with stories based on pre-existing properties. Sometimes, that can work out, but more often, it seems like trying to get blood from a stone. There’s enough good stuff and enough good people involved in Bates Motel that if it were just a quirky small town show trying to find itself, I’d be tempted to give it a pass. But it’s not just that. It’s also trying to be a moody, atmospheric horror show, with occasional moments of intense brutality. It’s a mix that just doesn’t work—at least not yet—and it’s hard to see if it ever will. Psycho’s a great movie, but when trying to get blood from that stone, it’s usually better to pick a bigger, juicier stone.
- I’ve got a big gap in my Monday night reviewing options, and this looks like it could be just the thing to fill it. I’m going to keep watching. Would you want to read reviews? Watch the première and let us know!