Imagine a town where Norman Bates is not the most dangerous resident. Actually, imagine a town where the matricidal, motel-managing maniac from director Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous 1960 proto-slasher Psycho is, maybe, one of the good guys. That is the intriguing hook of Bates Motel, a modern-day-set TV prequel to Hitchcock’s film that comes from creators/executive producers Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) and Carlton Cuse (Lost).
Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) plays the devoted-to-Mom, 17-year-old Norman, while Vera Farmiga (The Departed) has a firm grasp on the other end of the metaphorical umbilical cord as Norma Bates, who relocated the pair to that infamous roadside motel in the coastal town of White Pine Bay. The premiere suggested most of the show’s fun would be found in tracking the oedipal, and homicidal, progress of the central relationship. Certainly, Norma’s dispatching of a rapist — and her and Norman’s subsequent disposal of his body — made clear that folks who mess with the Bateses do so at their own peril. But in the following two episodes, Ehrin and Cuse make clear their intention to spiritually twin White Pine Bay with the town in, well, Twin Peaks, as they offer a range of puzzles about Norman and Norma’s increasingly sinister-seeming new burg. Who, for example, turned a warehouse owner into a human torch? What’s up with that big field of marijuana? Is Norman’s half brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), a villain or a victim-to-be (or both)? And can Norman and his cystic-fibrosis-stricken love interest, Emma (Olivia Cooke), uncover the mystery of the kidnapped girl who was once held prisoner at the motel now owned by Norma?
Whether these questions — and the many others that are sure to follow — will be answered to viewers’ satisfaction remains to be seen. Fans of Lost (and, for that matter, Twin Peaks) will be aware that not every glittering dramatic conundrum ends with a golden resolution. But these initial episodes do nicely establish a universe in which the question of how exactly Norman wound up as the shower industry’s worst nightmare is not the only one of interest. It is, of course, a debatable point whether this is the most politic time to be launching a TV show about our most famous fictional killer (or maybe second-most famous after Hannibal Lecter, whose own small-screen prequel, Hannibal, debuts on NBC April 4). Then again, the ongoing controversy over violence in popular culture does not seem to have affected the viewing figures for Fox’s The Following, and as it happens, Bates Motel is a comparatively gore-free zone.
The most believable character — and the real reason to check in to Bates Motel — is undoubtedly Farmiga’s Norma. To say the star of The Departed, Up in the Air, and (the sadly underseen) Source Code is one of the most talented actresses around doesn’t add much to the sum of human knowledge. But it bears repeating, and Farmiga sells the hell out of Ma Bates, eschewing the temptation to go Mommie Dearest broad and instead gifting her possessive, resilient, sexy, and yes, possibly insane matriarch with the same subtle shading she has previously lent her big-screen work. While we will wait and see if Bates Motel merits an extended stay plotwise, Farmiga gives a performance to die for. B+