As you may have guessed, I have a vested interest in A&E’s Bates Motel thanks to the show’s source material Psycho and that film classic’s comely, clearly gay, and unforgettably awkward star Anthony Perkins. For me, that movie was about a cloistered gay dude attempting to overcome his own insecurities, social dysfunction, and maybe a couple of homicidal tendencies too. We’ve all been there.
Bates Motel, the original series that modernizes Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of motel proprietor Norman Bates while exploring his childhood back-story, is not that intriguing, no matter how much of myself I project onto it. Based on the pilot, which debuted on A&E Monday night, it’s fair to say the show is determined to establish itself as a spooky campfire tale, not a thrilling psychodrama for the ages. But maybe that’s a worthwhile venture too. Well, wait — was 666 Park Avenue worth it? Never mind. Forget I said that.
Because Bates Motel is interested in Norman Bates’ back-story, we meet him here as a squirmy high-schooler (played by Finding Neverland’s onetime scamp Freddie Highmore). His mother Norma (!), who is much less animated in the Hitchcock tale, is played here as an Ann Taylor Loft-approved disciplinarian by Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga, who was the only enjoyable thing about Up in the Air. She and Norman have a very loving, yet claustrophobic and kooky relationship. Case in point: Norma forces Norman to help her renovate the dilapidated motel she just bought, even if it means he can’t go out to make friends in their eerie new town. She’s a clinger. And Norman doesn’t mind clinging back, even if he does sneak out once to convene with cute girls from school. Bad Norman! The crippling guilt begins here. Channel it into taxidermy, young mensch.
You’ll be enchanted to know that Norma’s new motel is an exact replica of the Hitchcock version, down to the staggering staircase and creaky floors, but that simulacrum is a fair metaphor for the show’s biggest problem. For a series that’s supposed to take place in the present day, too much of what we see seems accidentally embedded in the 1960s. It’s like a take-me-seriously version of The Brady Bunch Movie where none of Norman’s classmates realize he looks ridiculous with his retro schoolboy khakis and Beaver Cleaver-style haircut. Norman’s peers sling around iPhones and speak in 21st century slang, but they’re apparently too stunned by the precious new kid’s big eyes and vacant niceness to notice he’s a walking Fisher Price Little Person. Even Norman’s guidance counselor seems taken in by his sweet visage. It’s… unbelievable. And uncomfortable. And not in a deliciously uncomfortable Anthony Perkins way.
But nothing is as unsettling as the way Bates Motel goes about proving that Norma Bates is responsible for the trauma of Norman’s life. The night when Norman sneaks out of the house, a crazed intruder begins to rape Norma in a scene that is jarringly long, painstaking, and vivid. Norman arrives home and bludgeons the predator, but it’s a difficult scene to forgive. Is this how we deepen the quality of female characters in a jif? By victimizing them in excruciating detail? Norma and Norman find themselves disposing of the body, and because Norma doesn’t want to ruin business at her exquisite inn, she vows not to tell the police. Uh-huh. Just throw him in Room 6, Vera.
It’s all a stretch (as expected, of course), but the one thing pulling me back for episode two is the admirable quality of the performances. Highmore is provocatively blank, but more importantly, Farmiga plays up her character’s self-possession while playing down the hokey, maniacal quality of her maternal dialogue. It makes her closeness with Norman feel — at least for now — believably aboveboard, and not just a knowing exchange of incestuous grins. I’ll be back for next week’s episode, but I’m hoping for the secondary characters of Bates Motel to check in with some damn intelligence soon. Otherwise this has all the heft of a Goosebumps book sprinkled with the dicier parts of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for “entertainment’s” sake. Yes, we all go a little mad sometimes, but Bates Motel could stand to water down its insanity with a little subtlety and restraint. It needs a cold shower, if you will.