When the concept of the new A&E series Bates Motel was first announced, I have to admit I was skeptical. In 1998, director Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho was a spectacular failure. At the height of the slasher film craze in the '80s, three sequels to the original Psycho were produced that are largely forgotten today, and NBC attempted to mount a television series entitled Bates Motel in 1987. Although the sequels were generally entertaining horror flicks, most people don't know they exist and they suffered in the shadow of Hitchcock's original, which was responsible for influencing a generation of filmmakers and almost singlehandedly creating an entire genre. The legacy of Psycho is impossible to live up to, so there seemed to be absolutely no reason to revisit this franchise.
On top of that, the new trend in entertainment is to reboot old shows and movies with younger stars to explore the origins of some of the most well-known characters in the public consciousness. In the world of television, The CW premiered its Sex And The City prequel series The Carrie Diaries this season, while NBC's Hannibal will finally debut on April 4 and focus on the activities of Dr. Hannibal Lecter prior to his appearance in Silence of the Lambs. A&E's Bates Motel appeared to be another cash-in, this time on the name value of Psycho and its main character Norman Bates, made worse by the decision to transplant Norman's coming-of-age story into a contemporary world rife with cellphones and iPods. The cynic in me derided the modern trappings of this new series as an obvious opportunity for product placement, while cutting corners on costume and set design, therefore rendering the whole project illegitimate. No doubt, Bates Motel would be a complete travesty.
Then I actually watched the show when it premiered last night.
Despite my misgivings about the need to set the show in modern times with all of its annoying technology, Bates Motel is a slick and well-crafted look at the disturbing relationship between teenage Norman and his mother Norma, featuring two fantastic performances from Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. Farmiga brings charm and grace to the role, imbuing the borderline-personality Mrs. Bates with some very human qualities. She loves and cherishes her son, almost too much, and is driven by the fear of losing him. She is also fiercely independent, strong-willed, and manipulative.
When Norman decides to try out for the track team after school and arrives late for dinner, Norma brutalizes him psychologically with a combination of guilt-tripping and passive-aggressive warfare. Later, Norman defies his mother by sneaking out of the house to join a group of girls who have befriended him at school, but while he is gone, the former owner of the motel property breaks into the house and sexually assaults Norma in a difficult scene to watch. Fortunately, Norman returns home mid-rape and bludgeons the man with a clothes iron, but this is a pivotal scene in the young man's development. We can see how Norman grows so attached to his mother and why his destiny is intertwined with hers.
Displaying a passing resemblance to a young Anthony Perkins, Freddie Highmore superbly recreates this memorable character and adds his own shading to the performance. His body language and reaction to pressure mirror the behavior of Perkins in the original film, and the halted manner in which he utters "Mother!" is just as accurate. Like the older version, Norman is sheltered and socially awkward, but he's spreading his wings and incrementally trying to figure out who he is when his mother isn't controlling him. Part of that may involve a booklet he discovered in one of the rooms, illustrated with depictions of various voyeuristic torture-porn activities, including a picture of a girl in the shower that hints at things to come.
The series premiere ends with what looks like a deleted scene from a Saw movie, a re-enactment of one of the illustrations featuring a girl chained to the floor of an unknown room while someone injects her with a needle. With former Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse at the helm, Bates Motel is laying the foundations for its own mythology and mysteries designed to keep viewers tuning in. Near the end of the episode, due respect is paid to the unveiling of the iconic Bates Motel neon sign that lured Janet Leigh into the small-town motel over 50 years ago, a nice nod to the classic film that inspired the series. As long as the show can balance homage with its own fresh take on the material, Bates Motel will be seeing repeat business from this patron.
FINAL GRADE: B