Following the death of his father, young Norman Bates and his mother move to a dilapidated old motel hoping to turn it into a successful business…
Following The Girl and Hitchcock, here’s yet another dip into the deep waters of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s signature creations. The question has to be asked, though: who thought that Psycho was in need of a prequel, and what’s more a prequel set in the present day? It might take inattentive viewers a few moments to realize that’s the case as the pre-titles sequence goes out of its way to pretend that Bates Motel is a 1950s period piece. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity here is that it is not a Mad Men-style reboot of a genuine horror classic.
Accepting this is a present-day retelling, why are the iconic old house and the motel still untouched from their 1950s incarnation? The place comes complete with 1950s fixtures and fittings, and looks exactly as it does in the movie. This is weirdly familiar and very unsettling when characters answer mobile phones and walk around with iPods on… So, that’s the first wrong call—a period setting would have worked better and simply made better sense…
Next: the tone of this thing is all over the place. British actor Freddie Highmore looks the part as a young Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates (despite his occasionally wandering American accent) and Vera Farmiga makes her mark as his doting mother Norma (and how could they resist casting a ‘Vera’ in a Psycho-inspired series?). However, while he’s playing serious and moody, she’s in high camp mode much of the time.
Just when you’re getting used to that, out of nowhere they throw in a truly brutal rape scene. WTF? OK, I see, they’re attempting to ape the out-of-nowhere killing of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, right? It’s a completely unexpected event that powers the rest of the narrative, as in the movie. And fine, it leads to the mother and son killing their first victim (Or is it? There’s something fishy about Norma’s non-reaction to her husband’s death), so setting their interdependency in train.
It’s not enough, though. What’s the point of this show? Despite the modern setting, we know where the story has to go (that is, if the intention is to stay true to Hitchcock, and if it’s not, then why bother?). This is a show that seems to have no justification for existing. If you want a small town melodrama (one of the ingredients here) then remake Peyton Place. If you want something different from the rest of the ‘horror’ series out there, why not stick to a 1950s setting? And people have done the characters named after horror directors thing before: what’s the point in calling characters ‘Carpenter’ and ‘Romero’ when you’re trying to create a realistic drama—it just lifts the viewer completely out of the episode.
As for the rape scene, after American Horror Story any new show has to go a long way to produce something genuinely weird and shocking, and Bates Motel doesn’t manage it. This has 10 episodes already in the can and scored three million viewers for A&E, making it a hit for them. It’ll be interesting to see how many of those three million stick around and how many rapidly check out of Bates Motel…
Verdict: Probably pointless.
Episode 1 ‘First You Dream, Then You Die’: 6/10
Brian J. Robb