The A&E drama Bates Motel is a critical conundrum, and after watching the first three episodes, I’m still not sure how to untangle it.
Created by Anthony Cipriano and executive-produced by Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), Bates Motel is an origin story for, or prequel to, Psycho — and yet it isn’t. Like Robert Bloch’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s same-named film, it revolves around a troubled young man named Norman Bates (Freddy Highmore, who played Charlie in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But where Norman’s mother was, um, an absent presence in earlier versions, on this show she’s very much alive, played by Vera Farmiga in a performance that seems at once meticulously studied and disarmingly “real” (a Streep-like vibe); Ma Bates has both a name (Norma!) and a complex, often unnerving personality.
The Norma-Norman relationship isn’t the show’s only deviation from its source, or sources; Bates Motel is mostly deviations, really. It’s set in the present. Norman has an older, tougher half-brother named Dylan Massett (Max Thierrot) — his mom’s son from a previous marriage — who gets involved in the local underworld while needling Norma for being a rotten parent. There are hints that Norma’s a femme fatale/black widow with more than one brutal crime in her past. Everyone uses a cell phone and communicates via text message, and in one sequence, Norman uses his phone’s camera light as a flashlight to navigate a dark house.
The show isn’t shy about indulging retro design and music (the second episode makes deft ironic use of Herp Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love With You”). But these touches are spice rather than the whole meal. The show is anchored by a few iconic signifiers from Hitchcock’s film — the motel itself, rebuilt panel-by-panel on location in foggy Vancouver; a classically triangular butcher knife; god’s-eye view shots revealing horrors that the ignorant or innocent can’t quite spot — but the visual style is Modern Cable Drama, with a desaturated color scheme and lots of handheld shots, and the overall feeling is more Twin Peaks than Psycho. This is partly because of the shared locale (David Lynch’s classic was filmed in visually similar areas of Washington State and Northern California, and there’s a shot in Bates Motel’s second episode that seems a deliberate reference to Peaks’ title card shot). But it’s also a function of the show’s format, which turns the motel property and the surrounding community into a darker, kinkier cousin of Peyton Place. It’s a small town, yet big enough to contain a multitude of sins: rape, murder, sexual slavery, drug dealing, you name it. There’s a Peaks-like tension between buried malevolence and cornball “innocence,” and I was pleasantly surprised by how convincingly Bates Motel sells the latter. This is the kind of series that can have one character tell another, “You’re like a beautiful, deep, still lake in the middle of a concrete world,” while a Coldplay song peals on the soundtrack, and make the moment feel ridiculous, organic and sincere all at once.
I’m torn between condemning the series for piggybacking on a classic and promising an origin story it doesn’t really care to deliver, and praising it for avoiding the homicidal Muppet Babies formula and pulling a pretty brazen bait-and-switch. More the latter, I suppose — for now, anyway. Bates Motel is tangentially connected to Robert Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Psycho; like Norma Bates, it has kept its married name while pursuing its own identity and agenda. It’s as much Norma’s show as Norman’s. Their relationship — which often suggests age-imbalanced, platonic spouses rather than mother-son — is the tale’s misshapen center of gravity. I’ve read early reviews claiming that Bates Motel plays up the incestuous undertones in Hitchcock’s original and in the various sequels and prequels (especially the flashback-driven Psycho IV: The Beginning), but that’s not accurate — not quite yet, anyway. There’s something deep and scary about Norman and Norma’s relationship, but only when you stand outside of it; when you’re inside with them, it seems quite comfortable. Norma is as attractive-repulsive an antihero as Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Farmiga, who told one interviewer that she considers herself the thespian version of Mrs. Bates’s defense attorney, uncovers layers in the character that are recognizably human, if not exactly sympathetic. Norma uses her boy as slave labor to refurbish the hotel she just bought with Norman’s dead father’s insurance money; she’s not above using flirtation or sex to manipulate local men who might otherwise cause problems for her; she makes her son an accessory to crimes and weighs him with horrible guilt for behaving as any halfway normal teenage boy would. And yet, no matter how flagrantly Norma exploits her boy, we never doubt her love for him, his love for her, her Mildred Pierce–like determination to make a comfortable place for herself in a man’s world, and his loyalty to her vision. All of these qualities make them hard to entirely hate. When Norman sneaks out to attend a party with a beautiful local girl named Bradley (Nicole Peltz) rather than rest up to help his mom with motel renovations, Norma practically climbs up on a cross and nails herself to it; but such masochistic passive-aggressive behavior is balanced by moments of clarity in which Norma sounds almost, well, normal.
“You’re too good for me,” she tells her boy. “I’m the worst mother in the world. Look at what your life has been. What good am I doing you?”
“You’re my whole world, my whole life,” he replies. “You always have been. It’s like there’s a cord between our hearts.”
It’ll take a big knife to cut it.