By James Hibberd
Updated January 05, 2013 at 06:35 PM EST
Credit: Joe Lederer

The producers and cast of A&E’s Psycho prequel Bates Motel faced down TV critics on Friday and took questions about the new triller, which stars Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as a teenage Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga (The Departed) as his mother as they open an ill-fated roadside motel. Here’s what we learned:

There’s nothing supernatural about this horror series. With executive producer Carlton Cuse coming from ABC’s Lost, critics were curious if he was going to add any paranormal (para-Norman?) elements to the show. “No polar bears, no smoke monsters for sure,” Cuse says. “There’s no supernatural elements in play. We view this as a psychological thriller, as a very character based thriller type of story.”

The show will be serialized; no murder-of-the-week. “Like all the best serialized shows, whether Breaking Bad or Homeland, it’s a kind of a story that takes ten episodes to unfold,” Cuse says. “And there’s some hooks that will hopefully carry us into a second season. We’re not just solving one particular crime. There’s a number of mysteries.”

The backstory provided in Psycho and its sequels will not determine the story of Bates Motel. Producers say the show was inspired by the original 1960 film, but that’s as far as they’re creatively bound. “There’s a certain amount of baggage that comes from working within the Psycho franchise,” Cuse says. “But it ultimately seemed like far more opportunity … we are going to catch up with a version of the character from the movie, but we don’t feel literally bound, as someone asked earlier, to have Marion Crane come rolling into the Bates Motel.” In other words, the show isn’t, as one critic quipped, How I Stuffed My Mother.

Vera Farmiga’s portrayal of Norma Bates is more sympathetic than you might expect. Producers point out that what Psycho fans know about Norman’s twisted mother largely comes from her insane son. “I got into this wanting to defend who that woman was,” Farmiga says. “[In the show] she was just such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity to me … [it’s] a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son, and that’s that’s how I perceive the character. There’s an Edvard Munch painting of the Madonna. It’s really warped and it kind of exudes the sacred and the profane and it’s just psychologically gripping, and that’s what I was so drawn to with Norma. She’s a playground for an actress.”

What drives Norman nuts may be up for debate. “[Norman] kind of indirectly challenges the audience by we all know where he’s going to end up,” Highmore says. “It doesn’t give anything away to say that he’ll go on to be psycho. But is that necessarily because of his upbringing? It’s that sort of argument between nature versus nurture. Is he who he is … or is it because they move to this dodgy town and there’s a sort of weird, intimate relationship between Norma and Norman. And that challenges the audience to think, ‘Well, if I was in that situation, if I had had the upbringing that Norman had had, would I be slightly different?’ You know, we all go a little mad sometimes.”

Bates Motel premieres March 18.