A prequel television series to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, set in the present day, Bates Motel follows the life of 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), as they make a life for themselves in the seaside town of White Pine Bay, Oregon.
In the series opener, “First You Dream, Then You Die,” Norman awakens from a nightmare to find his father bludgeoned to death in the basement, and his mother emerging from a hot shower. We don’t know exactly what happened—or who-done-it—but can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the story than the scene shares. Six months later, the pair attempt to start fresh when they move to White Pine Bay and purchase a house that is in foreclosure and comes with its very own hotel. Why a rusty, dusty small town motel? Why not! How else will Norman learn responsibility if not by becoming a hotel caretaker at 17? That’s Norma for you—willing to put all her energy (and Norman’s) into a project instead of having a relationship with him.
Like all loving mothers with psychopathic tendencies, Norma is intelligent, resilient, personable—and manipulative. Norma blurs the mother-son line from the beginning, pressuring Norman into behaving more like her husband than her son. Norman Bates may have started out a sweet little boy, but as the audience watches, his devious mother begins molding him into one the most famous fictional serial killers of all time.
Bates Motel airs on A&E, a network well-known for biographies and unscripted shows, such as Intervention, The First 48, Hoarders and Duck Dynasty. It’s also had some recent success with prime-time crime dramas Longmire and The Glades. So adding a thriller drama to the lineup is a logical step for a network that claims to have more original programming during prime time than all other premium cable entertainment networks.
Although the idea of a fictional serial killer show sounds original, it’s not.
Remember Showtime’s Dexter, America’s favorite serial killer that only kills other serial killers? And NBC premieres HannibalApril 4 to follow the exploits of literary psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In fact, this isn’t the first time a Psycho spin-off has aired on television. In 1987, NBC aired a 90-minute TV movie also titled Bates Motel.
Despite a previous, less-successful run of the original TV movie, A&E is attempting to score top ratings with its own dramatic program offerings, just like one of the best TV dramas on air today—AMC’s The Walking Dead, a show about a group of survivors in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Zombie Apocalypse. If A&E has its way, a murdering teen psychopath will soon overtake the zombies as the topic of water-cooler conversation. This seems likely, given the fact that Bates Motel skipped the pilot episode stage and was picked straight up for a 10-episode run, according to HollywoodReporter.com. Similarly, The Walking Dead was greenlit for a 6-episode first season based on the strength of the show’s source material, a comic-book series. Bates Motel, for its part, is building on the epic success of Psycho—and the American Film Institute listing it as the No. 1 Most Thrilling American Film (followed by Jaws, The Exorcist, North By Northwest, and The Silence of the Lambs).
So clearly, the series opener of Bates Motel should keep you on the edge of your seat from the start, just like The Walking Dead, right? Not really. Except for the fact that his father is dead, Norman’s life is pretty mundane as a teenager, especially since the audience needs to learn about all the major players before the real fun can begin. So expect some small instances of tension throughout the first half of the pilot before the real nail-biting scenes begin. Despite a somewhat slow start, Bates Motel is definitely worth watching. Since it’s set in 2013, there’s even a little wiggle room for the show’s creators to explore the Bates’s backstory without profaning Psycho’s legacy. The show is a fresh take on something iconic, so it’s sure to please all audiences.
Ready to give his new life a shot, Norman heeds the advice of his high school language arts teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), to try out for the track team. Miss Watson clearly takes an interest in helping him succeed, so I can’t help but wonder if Norman may take his relationship with Miss Watson a little too far someday—especially since he seems to blush when she’s around. It seems likely, as evident in Norman’s too-long, Peeping Tom stare at his half-naked mother through a window. Gross. The sexual tension is there, but masked throughout when Norman plays the creepily doting son, and Norma the overbearing mother (or is it wife?). Couple that with a deceased father, and the audience sees a clear nod to the Oedipal complex. Although neither Norman nor Norma make a pass at each other, thank goodness. Instead, they each set their sights on someone more attainable.
As the new kid at school, Norman unexpectedly catches the eye of the popular girl, Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz). Bradley and her friends invite Norman to hang out with them, but when Norma greets the bubbly girls at the door, she’s immediately turned off by them, and doesn’t let Norman leave. Perhaps she’s a little jealous? Or is she just protecting Norman’s innocence? Nonetheless, Norman sneaks out like your average teenage boy, and while he’s gone, something violent happens to Norma. Norman makes it home just in time for the Cliff Notes version of events, and ends up helping his mother clean up a bloody mess. Thank goodness they own their own hotel, as it provides them with plenty of bathtubs in which to stash a body overnight. Despite the gravity of the situation, the show’s writers work in a little humor when Norma complains about a blood stain in the carpet and how reporting the now-dead intruder will ruin her financially (yes, Norma, the dead guy on the floor has it so much better).
The plot of the show is about the development of Norman Bates’s lethal nature—and Norma’s apparent lack of empathy for anyone but her child. Her manipulative personality is often subtle, masked by her overwhelming desire to protect Norman (especially when she’s protecting herself). The inappropriate but logical family dynamic is effective, and only makes the audience want to see what Norma will do next to help her son along his fated path.
Not wanting to leave any evidence behind, Norma enlists Norman’s help to ri[ up the carpeting on the entire first floor of the hotel. While they’re hard at work in the blood-stained hotel room in the early hours of the morning, the pair are greeted by some inconvenient visitors. The local police—Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and Deputy Zack Shelby (Mike Vogel)—pull up to investigate why the lights are on at the vacant hotel, not knowing that Norma recently purchased the property. Sheriff Romero immediately dislikes Norma. For Sheriff Romero, it’s just too weird that she named her son after herself, and he doesn’t think Norman should be doing manual labor on a school night. Deputy Shelby, the top-notch investigator he is, only sees Norma’s blond hair and pretty smile. We’ll see how that relationship works out.
Bates Motel is dark and twisted from the get-go, digging deep into one of cinema’s most disturbing mother-and-son dynamics. But the show’s writers aren’t afraid to add a little campy humor now and again. Before dumping the body into a lake the next night, Norma sadly admits she’s not winning any Mother of the Year awards anytime soon. Because, after all, it’s all about Norma. But Norman, the ever-trusting, ever-loving, ever-naïve young man, tells her he wouldn’t have it any other way, and that they “belong to each other.” Ew.
So no matter what, “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” according to the original Norman Bates.
Norma’s and Norman’s relationship is clearly a rollercoaster ride from the beginning—a slow, chugging climb to the top before dangling at the precipice, leaving your stomach clenched for what’s to come before lurching forward at top speed. If you know anything about Psycho, you already know Norma and Norman’s fate, but it’s hard not to root for a cookie-cutter conclusion of a mom and son starting over, without the impending doom and gloom of a psychotic future. Their relationship is clearly manipulative, but subtle in a way that doesn’t make you want to change the channel and call child protective services on the fictional Norma. She’s cutthroat, but loves her son and would do anything for him, or so we hope.
It’s even easy to envision a happier outcome in some of Norma’s more motherly moments. Trying to make up for the, um, incident, Norma has a surprise for Norman. She’s installed the new neon BATES MOTEL sign and painted it blue—Norman’s favorite color. But how many more “I’m sorry for forcing you to help me conceal a murder” surprises can she throw at him this season? Either way, Bates Motel is going to be a bloody good time.
Bates Motel airs Mondays on A&E at 10/9pm CST.