Bates Motel Series Premiere Review: Time Warp

Bates Motel S01E01: "First You Dream, Then You Die"

Hollywood has become (and, really, has been for a while) fond of remaking and rebooting, sequeling and prequeling, and spinning off and on and on and on. Couple that with the clear ratings benefit that comes with violence, sex, and horror, and you can begin to understand why some Universal Television executive likely said, "Hey. We own Psycho, one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Why isn't there a Psycho TV series that's about how Norman went a little mad? We should do that. Then we sell it to a cable channel that's looking to expand their scripted program offerings." And then another executive said, "Or NBC." And then everyone laughed and laughed.

It's actually not that bad of an idea from a business and marketing standpoint. Psycho's still popular even after 53 years, so there's a built-in fanbase to exploit (and probably irritate) and clearly there's a market for psychosexual shenanigans and horror, given the success of American Horror Story and The Walking Dead. From a narrative standpoint, though, things get decidedly murkier for Bates Motel

See, I'm not opposed to a take on how Norman became the killer we see in Alfred Hitchcock's film, even if we've already seen that sort of origin story play out with the made-for-television movie Psycho IV: The Beginning back in 1990. I think there's enough room within the framework of the original film to tell this story again, and for it to be a possibly compelling look at how the dynamics between Norman and Norma resulted in what we see in Hitchock's movie.

But time's certainly the issue, isn't it? The decision to set the show in the contemporary, with all the iPhones and the earbuds, creates an odd sense of dissonance from the source material. Admittedly, this frees the showrunners, Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), to give us their own take on things—and there's something exciting about that idea—but at the same time, when it's 2013 and there are plenty of serial killer movies to choose from and it would not be difficult at all for Norman to just buy some professionally produced erotic manga on the internet, you sort of have to wonder how events in this series will end up the way they do in the film, and without anyone surrounding Norman and Norma being the wiser. Although that's assuming that events in this series DO end up like they do in the film. Cuse and Ehrin have been cagey about even admitting that Bates Motel will tie back into Psycho.

That issue isn't the only odd dissonance, but the other one I'm actually far more okay with. Norman and Norma are wonderfully enclosed in their own world and each other, and the city of White Pine Bay—as well as most of modernity—intrudes on all of that. They exist in this far-flung time warp, where Norma gets dressed for a dinner she's prepared or Norman's T-shirts are all in that ringer, vintage-style, but you know that Norman doesn't wear them because they're trendy (if they're trendy, I have no idea). So in the premiere, when Norman tells Bradley at that house party that seems like the high school version of Eyes Wide Shut that there's so much to just look at, he truly means it. 

And I kinda like the tension that results from the Bateses clinging to a past of some sort as the contemporary period, represented by people and not technology, constantly ruptures their lives. Whether it's ALL THE CUTE GIRLS (and a handsy language arts teacher) that Norman seems to attract without even trying or the former owner of the property breaking into their home and raping Norma, the Bateses just don't seem to belong here; it's something that, should the show develop it, could elevate the series beyond just its premise of "Here's how Norman became a serial killer who took on his mother's personality."

But even if that doesn't happen, I'd be game for watching Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman for a little while. Highmore, in particular, is just channeling Anthony Perkins' quiet presence and halting speech from the film, and I sort of can't get over how watchable he is. Even when he needs to shout or land a couple of funny lines, they don't break the character. Plus that goofy-ass grin slays me. Farmiga, I think, has the much harder task of trying to make abject mother Norma both horrible and sympathetic, and I think it'll take longer to establish those character traits. I still like her little bits of business, including swinging her legs like a young girl when she hops onto her bed in front of Norman or posing a bit like a pin-up on the car's hood, but finding a balance between that sort of thing and being domineering is going to be tough.

Overall, I'm a bit more positive on Bates Motel than Tim seemed to be in his "Hey,, Should I Watch" preview, but then I've only watched the pilot so far, and he's seen the first three episodes. I would agree that, even just based on the pilot, it seems odd for Bates Motel not to be a miniseries instead of a potentially ongoing show, and also that it certainly doesn't seem primed to set the television world on fire. But it could very well settle into a low-key creepfest, and I certainly wouldn't mind.


– While I knew before watching that Bates Motel takes place in a modern setting, I still found myself thinking it was at least thirty or forty years ago during the cold open. If you didn't notice the baseball game on the flatscreen TV (and I didn't, the first time I watched the pilot, because of that huge iron), then Norman's earbuds were sort of surprising.

– "You’re like a beautiful, deep still lake in the middle of a concrete world." See, Bradley, now that's a line.

– I do appreciate that the bypass is a plot element in the show, considering it's pretty much what allowed Norman to live in seclusion for so long in the movie.

– "Who's going to book a room in the rape-slash-murder hotel?"

– "Clean this up with paper towels and spray cleaner?! No, I don't think so."

– At first I thought that Summers had gone on a bender and decided to attack Norma. But then he seemed to have a rape utility belt, complete with duct tape, a box cutter, and handcuffs. Which makes it decidedly premeditated and awful that he would even prepare something like that.

– Sheriff Romero (Hi, Nestor Carbonell! I don't like the haircut.) certainly decided to take the longest and loudest pee in history. 

What'd you think of your first night's stay in Bates Motel? Will you be returning, or are you Ready to check out?

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