So I’ve been watching A&E’s new Bates Motel TV show and I thought I’d share some thoughts on it. The show seems to be getting some popular buzz and if we’re good at anything here at Infinite Hollywood, it’s trying to capitalize on something for our own benefit. Truth be told, I’ve been a bit of a Psycho kick recently, digging out my Big Lots bargain DVD set of the three original Psycho sequels and watching them in the past few weeks. I had planned to review them here, but general laziness supercedes all.
Anyway, coming into A&E’s new take on the old tale of Norman Bates, there’s a lot to compare it to. Frankly, the few other reviews I’ve taken a look at disgust me, because they act as if there was only ever one Psycho film. Look, Hitchcock’s Psycho is a timeless classic, but it’s an absolute disservice to everyone to pretend like that’s the only exposure we ever got to Norman Bates. The following three Psycho sequels are all fine films in their own right and throughout there are some incredible moments (some dumb ones too) but Anthony Perkins was able to craft Norman Bates into a really interesting and misunderstood character, turning in downright fantastic performances in each film.
And that’s probably the biggest problem with Bates Motel, there is no Anthony Perkins. No, I don’t mean the actor (although it’s certainly sad Perkins is no longer with us, I would have loved a Psycho 5) but rather there’s no one who can command the screen quite like him. Perkins’ magic, was that he could make you very interested in what he was doing, even if the movie he was in wasn’t all that great. Nobody does steely eyed lunatic, quite like Perkins did.
Freddy Highmore shouldn’t necessarily be compared to Perkins, despite the obvious reasons to want to, but Highmore has problems of his own to worry about beyond comparisons. In the first episode, Highmore exposes his British accent two or three times. Seriously, how did A&E let that slip? He’s also a tad too babyfaced and generally likeable. I suppose that could work if he eventually does become a ruthless killer, but with a show of this nature you risk turning the audience off by making him suddenly turn on a dime. There does seem to be a bit of a darkside hiding behind those eyes, so maybe he can make it work.
This of course leads us to another problem with the show overall and that’s turning Bates into a hero or a good guy. This is something that plagued the later Psycho sequels, although sometimes it was used to great effect in that Bates couldn’t change his stripes even when he tried. This show doesn’t have that working for them, however, as we’re seeing Norman before he’s a “psycho” and again it starts to put the whole premise into dangerous territory.
Those things said, there are some good elements here. Vera Farmiga does an admirable job of portraying Norman’s obsessive control freak mother. She’s very annoying, I already want to murder her, which I guess sets a good tone since Norman will eventually want to serve her some tea. Her performances are a bit all over the place, but I attribute that to her supposedly being insane.
Likewise the show feels very much like a modern day Twin Peaks, presenting a town that’s full of mysterious characters with shady backgrounds and shiny folksy exteriors. Also, the interaction between Norman and his mother, the absurdly named Norma, is quite good and plays on the classic Psycho story. It’s not quite as effective as the version from Psycho 4, but it’s certainly touching some of those same notes.
Unfortunately, this is also a problem as well. The show really feels like two shows and perhaps that’s my biggest complaint. Each episode is a little bit about the beginning of a modern day version of Norman Bates and the rest is about unraveling the mystery of this wacky town and the crazed lunatics who inhabit it. This inherently is a problem because if the Bates family was just a normal bunch of folks, their arrival would be most interesting… But knowing what we know about who Norman Bates is, it suddenly makes what he’ll grow up to become, almost unimportant. He’s just another murderer in a town full of ‘em!
In the second episode, two people were burned alive, we learned about at least one other murder, sex trafficking, drug fields in the woods and a variety of other seedy behavior. Suddenly a guy who runs a motel and occasionally kills people on the edge of town is hardly the worst thing in the world. Perhaps the crew of A&E’s Bates Motel will find a way to marry all these elements together and make it work, but I’m certainly left wondering at this point.
Despite what seems like my condemnation of the show, it’s pretty good overall and certainly watchable. As it stands, I’m definitely much more interested in the town than the Bates stuff, but neither has been horrible. It’s all completely unbelievable of course, but perhaps the most unrealistic element of the show is not the insanity of the town or the birth of a serial killer, but rather the teenage girls who seem to be throwing themselves at poor socially awkward Norman. Even his teacher at school is quite hot and seems to have a thing for him.
In the first episode a bunch of hot young girls not only flirt with Norman, but they invite him to some sort of rave. My girlfriend turned to me at one point and said, “Girls don’t really do that, you know,”. I of course burst into laughter, as if she had to tell me that hot, popular chicks don’t immediately want to hang out with the skinny new kid in town with the overprotective mother. Christ, I lived that experience.
By the second episode, Norman already has another girl trying to jump into his pants. It’s easily the biggest suspension of disbelief that you have to do while watching Bates Motel. Hell, Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox could show up with the cast of Cheers and Abe Vigoda to stay at the Motel and it’d be more believable than a bunch of girls trying to make friends with the nerdy new kid at school, but I digress.
Bates Motel is an interesting premise and a show that would probably be a lot stronger if it wasn’t tied to the famous Psycho franchise. Of course, like many people, I probably wouldn’t have ever tuned in had it not been about the infamous Anthony Perkins character, so only time will tell if this show can live up to the expectations of the iconic character. For now I’m tepid, but intrigued.