In 1959 Robert Bloch wrote a novel titled Psycho. It was about an unbalanced man named Norman Bates and his mother Norma, with whom he ran a motel…and murdered people. A year later, Alfred Hitchcock cast Antony Perkins as Norman, and turned the novel into a masterpiece of film-making which to this day stands as his more recognized work.
Norman Bates became an icon, and after the master of suspense passed away in 1980, attempts were made to cash in on the character. First with three subpar squeals that all starred Perkins, and then in 1998 a
remake replica starring Vince Vaughn in the lead. All four projects failed to recapture what had made the original so special. So then they changed direction and gave us a movie about the making of the classic; Hitchcock. It was met with lukewarm reception, and did little for the legacy of the characters.
Well, now someone is trying again. This most recent adaptation, A&E’s Bates Motel, premiered last night to huge numbers for the cable network. 4.6 million households tuned in according to the (outdated) Nielsen overnights. That’s the most watched series premiere in A&E’s history. The lure of Norman Bates is clearly still strong 60+ years after he was created.
So, a lot of people watched it, but was it any good?
The show opens up with an ambiguous setting in terms of time. The clothes and decor are of an older fashion and it’s not clear what year the show takes place in. Even the car when first glanced upon isn’t immediately identifiable with an era to average viewer. It’s not until Norman is shown listening to his iPod that we realize this is set modern day, and that the aesthetic choices of the Bates are there to blend the style of the original film with this newest vision. This is no doubt a very deliberate move by the show’s creators to stay as grounded in the mythology as possible. They’ve created a world that the audience can buy as that which Norman might have grown up in.
The story begins with Norman finding his father’s body in the garage, no doubt (for the viewer) murdered by mommy dearest, Norma Bates (though there are theories that Norman killed his dad and blocked it out). The timeline jumps six months and Norma and her son arrive at the newly purchased (and destined to be renamed) Seafairer Motel. This gives us a look at just how impulsive Norma must be as the whole endeavor is a surprise to Norman. We learn that the motel and the house that sits behind it were purchased at a foreclosure auction, and it’s not long before the previous owner shows up to make trouble. Without giving too much away, before the episode is over we have a murder, a rape, a close call with the cops, and multiple hints of a sordid history on the property from before. Norman is starting to make friends (potential victims) at school, the most interesting being Emma (the girl who has Cystic Fibrosis and a blog). We also find out something previously not reveled – Norman is not an only child.
As the pieces fall in place, Norma proves herself more and more unstable, and we start to see the embers that will eventually turn Norman into one of the most iconic characters in the history of horror movies.
The casting thus far is a strength, with Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) doing an exemplary job as our budding psychopath. Our other lead, Norma Bates is played by the lovely Vera Farmiga (The Departed), and she seems to have pretty quickly nailed down the needy and overbearing mother figure. Those familiar with the story of this particular Mother-Son relationship know that the perversity of it stretches beyond just killing, and will eventually take a toll on young Norman from which he will never recover.
Highmore and Farmiga are lent some gravitas by W. Earl Brown (Deadwood) playing his usual salty type of character, and Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell), both of whom add familiar faces to the show whose biggest star is an inanimate Motel sign.
Despite the graphic nature of the attempted rape, followed by the murder, which would likely prove too much for the big four networks to air, the safe bet is that the aspect of the show that will garner more attention from the (useless) watchdog groups is the inevitable relationship that will form between Norman and his mother. Expect some outrage about that once it progresses.
Overall, the first episode, while not excellent, was entertaining and should be disturbing enough to keep the average viewer interested and tuning in, regardless if they are a fan of the 1960 movie or they’ve never seen it (those are the only 2 options). Over the next nine episodes we’re sure to meet Norma’s eldest son and see plenty more people expire at the hands of the Bates family, with the impending bypass a prime motive. The premiere was good enough to buy A&E a few more weeks – 3.5/5