Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.
25 years before A&E’s Bates Motel, there was NBC’s Bates Motel. However, instead of following the origins of Norman Bates, this made-for-TV movie tracks the grand re-opening of the infamous hostel. Filled to the brim with such Psycho staples as camp, interior design, and commentary on the death of smalltown America, the show never stood a chance.
Bates Motel appropriately suffers from a serious identity crisis, with director Richard Rothstein unsure if he wanted to parody or honor the series. More slapstick than slasher, the pilot is a jumble of misfired jokes, scares, and twists. Shooting most of the comedy in closeup and most of the drama in wide shots, Rothstein really lets us soak up how bizarre this thing really is.
Institutionalized since childhood for the murder of his stepfather, Alex (Bud Cort) inherits the Bates Motel after the death of his friend, roommate, and surrogate-father Norman Bates. He agrees to honor the memory of his fallen mentor and fix up the motel, a process that takes a majority of the pilot to finish. Rothstein follows Alex as he applies for bank loans, talks to architects, and staffs his business, while big money investment firms sabotage the motel. You see, this isn’t so much a show about burying old ghosts and summoning new ones as it is about small town America being destroyed by the mechanical claw of progress.
Alex’s love for Norman is the show’s first red flag. Most characters remember Norman fondly, chalking that whole ugly business with his mother and the shower up to a damn shame. Norman’s ashes silently encourage Alex, who spends a lot of time talking to Norman’s urn. But rather than a twisted relationship with a dead serial killer, Rothstein plays this relationship for pure sentiment. There’s something strange about the way the show praises Norman for his kindness and not condemning him for, you know, murdering several people. But, again, this isn’t a show about murders. It’s a show about a guy trying to open a business.
Bates Motel is already a pretty lousy home makeover show. We see that in the way Alex deals with bankers and contractors. But, in addition to that already being an insane way to revive the Psycho franchise, Rothstein directs a script that is trying desperately to be a comedy. No one mentioned this to Rothstein, however, who mostly shoots it with the dark atmosphere and tight close-ups of Hitchcock’s original. He sets the mood for horror, but his story is far more lighthearted than he realizes.
Then, the pilot takes a sharp turn. Somewhere around the 50-minute mark, Rothstein gets to direct his horror movie. The motel opens to no one, and Alex has to pay the bank, like, in a few hours. Luckily, a beautiful young writer books a room and puts herself in what everyone assumes is the Marion Crane position. Finally, it looks like this complete waste of time is going to payoff. After all, the original Psycho burns slow before Crane meets Bates. On the contrary, she’s just a suicidal divorcee, looking for a bathtub to end it all in.
I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’ll just say, the ghost of a suicide victim and Jason Bateman talk her out of it. The end.
Anyway, after that’s all over, Alex hears a scream from the house. There, he meets “Mother.” Again, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but as these Psycho things go, most people dressed like Mrs. Bates aren’t Mrs. Bates. This is no exception, and things wrap up in a very Scooby-Doo fashion.
Bates Motel has an acute case of schizophrenia. Bouncing from comedy to melodrama to horror, the show never establishes what it wants to be. Half the pilot makes a mockery of Psycho’s characters, interests, legacy, and style, giving it the feel of a different show, a show not based on Psycho. A greater sense of disconnection resides between the camera and the characters. Most of the gags are ruined by Richard Rothstein, who insists on a closeup of Bud Cort’s wide-eyed performance every time he misunderstands someone, which happens every five minutes.
In general, it’s hard to feel anything other than boredom with Bates Motel. The show seems to be noted to death, with NBC demanding Rothstein beef up the comedy, then the horror, then remind everyone why they like Tales from the Darkside real quick, and, hey, why not let Bud Cort directly address the audience? No, Mr. Cort, we won’t be coming back for a visit.
Matt Schimkowitz is a writer, TV-watcher, and former Bud Cort. Like you, he enjoys the finer things in life: drinking from coconuts, the latest Italian vogue, and complaining about movies, music, and TV on the Internet. Find more writing about canceled TV shows and other irrelevant nonsense on the twitter and blogosphere, respectively.