‘Bates Motel’ Pilot Recap: “I’m the Worst Mother in the World”

Although the A&E network’s new drama series ‘Bates Motel’, a modern-day reboot of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, doesn’t officially premiere until this evening, many cable networks have offered a preview of the pilot episode On Demand for the past several days. Intrigued by the concept, I decided to get a jump start on this one early. [Warning: This post will contain spoilers for tonight’s episode.]

On the one hand, the show almost seems to set itself up for failure. Any attempt to rework, franchise or otherwise exploit a movie as iconic as ‘Psycho‘ is doomed to be greeted with skepticism, if not disdain. This is a lesson that poor Gus Van Sant learned the hard way with his misguided remake back in 1998. Even last year’s bio-pic ‘Hitchcock‘, a heavily fictionalized account of the making of ‘Psycho’, was received to mixed reviews from both critics and audiences. On the other hand, the property was already watered down with a string of Hitchcock-less sequels that Universal churned out in the ’80s. Between those and the Van Sant film, the new TV series could hardly be any more of a desecration to the original work.

Furthermore, the show arrives with some notable talent behind it. Carlton Cuse, one of the guiding creative forces behind ‘Lost’, is the show-runner. Freddie Highmore from ‘Finding Neverland‘ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘ plays young Norman Bates, and Vera Farmiga (Oscar nominee for ‘Up in the Air‘) plays his high-strung mother, Norma.

Set in the present day, the pilot episode (called ‘First You Dream, Then You Die’) opens with teenage Norman discovering his father dead in the garage. His mother seems strangely unaffected by the loss of her husband (we have to assume she had a hand in it), and is more concerned about how upset the event has made her son. Cut to a few months later, and Norma has uprooted the family and moved out to California for a fresh start. “My mom’s a little… impulsive,” Norman explains to a concerned teacher. As evidence of this, Norma has purchased an old, foreclosed motel and the house behind it (both straight out of ‘Psycho’, unchanged save for the obvious CG-rendering of the house in many of the wide shots).

As the two of them begin work on renovating the property, they face resistance from the former owner, a drunken lout who claims to be friends with all of the local police. One night, after Norman has snuck out to attend a party with some new friends against his mother’s wishes, the scary creep breaks into the house and, in a very disturbing and unpleasant scene, rapes Norma. Norman returns just in time to save her from further harm, whereupon Norma grabs a knife and stabs the shit out of the guy. Norman considers this self defense and wants to call the police, but Norma refuses out of fear that, even in a best-case scenario, the news will go public and start a scandal in the town. “Who is going to book a room in the rape-slash-murder motel?” she asks, and actually has a good point.

Instead, Norma enlists her son’s help to dump the body in a lake, clean up the bloody mess, and cover the whole thing up. Again, she seems strangely unaffected by the fact that she was just raped, as if that part were an inconvenient nuisance in the way of her forging the perfect life for herself and her son. The local sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) almost stumbles upon them disposing of the body, but fortunately fails to notice the clues.

Highmore makes a pretty convincing young Norman Bates. Without ever outright imitating Anthony Perkins, he fits the body type (basically, a wimp) and gets the nervous energy right. Farmiga has a lot more latitude in playing Norma, a character never actually seen in the movie. She’s every bit the overprotective, passive-aggressive nightmare you’d expect to inadvertently raise a psychopath.

I find it kind of interesting that the pilot episode avoids the possible cliché of having Norman be bullied by kids his own age. He doesn’t seem to have too hard of a time fitting in at his new school (at least, not so far). He receives positive attention from two girls, one a popular cheerleader type and the other a cute nerd, neither of whom sets him up for humiliation. Even the popular girl’s boyfriend doesn’t come across as a jerk. Norman isn’t a social outcast. All of his problems stem directly from his mother alone. He could have had a normal life if not for her.

The pilot makes a couple of nods to Hitchcock, but doesn’t obnoxiously imitate his film or general style. ‘Bates Motel’ may not strike me as a television masterpiece just yet, but it doesn’t sully the legacy of ‘Psycho’. In fact, I think that the show has a lot of potential.

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