TV Review: Check in to A&E’s Creepy, Fun ‘Bates Motel’

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Average: 3 (2 votes)

CHICAGO – Few characters in the history of pop culture are as well known as Norman Bates. In fact, if you don’t know who (or where) the title of A&E’s new show, “Bates Motel,” refers to then you probably won’t enjoy it, presuming you have cable below the rock under which you live anyway. This contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless “Psycho” from executive producers Carlton Cuse (“LOST”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) brings Norman and his mother Norma Bates to the 21st century with all their creepy secrets intact. Very well-cast, clever, and fun, “Bates Motel” suffers a bit from tonal imbalance (is it camp, drama, thriller, or something else?) but that feels like something that will be worked out over time. Check in and give it a chance. Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

The premiere opens with a distraught Norman (Freddie Highmore of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now a teenager) waking up and finding his father’s body. Did he do it? Did his mother Norma (the Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga), who seems awfully calm, knock off the old man? The question is left unanswered as Norma moves them (it’s implied that it’s not the first time) to a small town named White Pine Bay, where she buys a motel and the home that rests above it. It’s the iconic locations from “Psycho” brought into the new millennium.

Bates Motel
Bates Motel
Photo credit: A&E

For the first act of “Bates Motel,” it’s hard to discern when it’s taking place. And yet that makes sense. There are large chunks of the heartland that still look like Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and so seeing the old house and the motel shouldn’t be too determinate. And even Norma and Norman’s style seems like it could be a product of the ’50s and ’60s. And then Norman has ear buds for his iPhone and all questions are laid to rest. We follow Norman to school and realize that this is 2013. It’s just Norma & Norman that are a little “old-fashioned.”

Bates Motel
Bates Motel
Photo credit: A&E

Refreshingly, Norman is not the outcast at school. He’s a cute new boy. The girls are naturally attracted to him. Part of the menacing charm of Tony Perkins in “Psycho” was that Perkins wasn’t a drooling, stuttering maniac. He was close to a heartthrob when he was cast. And so reimagining Norman as someone who the girls would want to sneak out and bring to a party makes sense even if dumber creators would have just gone for the crazy kid angle. Norman’s true darkness isn’t quickly revealed in “Bates Motel” and I like that he’s more casual and easygoing than other TV writers would have conceived.

More instantly off-kilter is Norma Bates, a woman who seems a bit too overprotective of her son. When the former owner of the Bates Motel returns to enact vengeance on the new tenants who he feels stole it when the bank foreclosed, Norma & Norman take care of business as a team. Even before that, Norma seems hesitant to let her son go out with the cute girl at school to a study group, almost as if she’s jealous. Farmiga is spectacular in these scenes, the ones that hint at disturbing traits beneath the beautiful surface. She’s reason alone to watch the show.

To be fair, the entire cast works. Highmore makes a very convincing lead, hiding his British accent and proving that he’s a child actor who will grow up into an interesting adult one as well. This is a perfect transitional part for him from “that kid from “Finding Neverland”” to more serious roles. The kids at school, the cops who investigate the first crime (including “LOST” great Nestor Carbonell) — the whole piece is well cast.

Bates Motel
Bates Motel
Photo credit: A&E

The writing is where the show falters, especially in the second half of the premiere. The show varies wildly in tone from lighthearted scenes at school to incredible violence in the Bates home to the more camp-tastic elements of “Norma & Norman”. It needs to balance itself out. How seriously are we supposed to take this? Or are we supposed to laugh at its more ridiculous elements? These are things that often happen over time as writers figure out how to write for their character’s voices and production teams determine where a show is going.

The first half hour of “Bates Motel” is a joy for this Hitchcock fan. Just getting back into the world, seeing how good Farmiga & Highmore are at roles that other actors would have fumbled, catching all the cues and references to a film that I know very well — I just enjoyed it. As the plotting gets more intense, it becomes easier to see mistakes being made, although I think they are all mistakes that could be fixed in just a few weeks. “Bates Motel” is a good show now and could be a great one soon.

“Bates Motel” stars Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga. It premieres on A&E on Monday, March 18, 2013 at 9pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

mzpyt's picture

Bates Motel is awesome

I love this show.not only do I watch it every week but I also dvr it so I can watch it again

wallrick's picture

Bates motel

lets see,we have Norma/Norman, pot growers,and now a sadistic deputy,I love it!

Jinny's picture

Batel Motel

This show is a pile of hyped up, overated shit.

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