Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bates Motel: Norman and Norma

In this day and age, serial killers actually have fans.  Maybe it is not the best way to get back at your mother anymore.  Nonetheless, a mild mannered teenager named Norman has a complicated relationship with his mother Norma that will eventually drive him to become the definitive psychopath.  High school may not help much either.  Viewers will learn how he gets from here to there in A&E’s prequel reboot Bates Motel (promo here), which premieres Monday night.

Norman Bates as played by Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s original masterpiece and a series of better than you might expect 1980’s cash-in sequels was always a tragic figure, even when hacking away at a guest in the shower.  Despite the body count we never hated Bates, because he never took pleasure from his compulsions.  In contrast, Motel periodically intersperses its primary drama with flashforwards to what appear to be the mature psychotic Norman engaged in some Saw-like torture-horrors.  It is a rather dubious strategy, undercutting viewer sympathy for the appropriately awkward but earnest Freddie Highmore’s Norman.  At least that is the case in the first episode, “First You Dream, Then You Die.”

After some messy but ill defined business with Norman’s father, Norma Bates decides she and Norman need a fresh start.  Sleepy White Pine Bay looks like a nice place for it.  Buying a foreclosed motel right off the highway with a spooky old house out back, the Bates are ready to start over. Of course, Norma Bates is not about to allow her son to socialize with the school hotties who show an inexplicable interest in him.  She also hears some troubling news about a highway bypass.  Worst of all, the former owner seems determined to harass her.  This will be a profound mistake on his part.

Highmore really could pass for a young Perkins, but seeing Norman Bates with an mp3 player just does not feel right.  The character and locale are just so firmly in 1960, any attempts to update them are jarring.  Still, the interaction between Norman and Norma plays well for fans of the franchise.  Frankly, it is a little scary how easily we accept Vera Farmiga as the mother of all manipulative mothers.  It is hard to judge from just the initial outing, but even some of the high school kids show potential to grow as characters.  Indeed, innocent young Norman Bates confronting Twins Peaks-style small town mysteries is definitely a promising premise.  However, it is hard to get around the pilot’s buzz-killing tonal shifts.

Notwithstanding whatever the heck grown-up Norman is doing (who knows, maybe it is not really him), the first episode of Bates Motel is definitely hooky.  It would be nice to judge from a larger sample, but A&E has made shrewd but judicious use of the pilot, unveiling it at SXSW, so evidently most of the press have had to make do with the same.  Worth a second look, Bates Motel debuts tomorrow night (3/18) on A&E.