[WARNING: This is a pre-review, so there will be spoilers.]
Full disclosure: I will pretty much watch Vera Farmiga in anything. She first came on my radar in the spring of 2004 when USA Network did a version of Touching Evil with a pre-Michael Westen Jeffrey Donovan. It was so well done and very short-lived, and if it had gone on, we wouldn’t have Burn Notice, and Farmiga wouldn’t have escalated into a very well-regarded dramatic force. She returns to TV in huge way as Norma Bates in A&E’s new dramatic series, Bates Motel, a Psycho prequel set in the present day (and if you’ve never seen Psycho, get on that). Farmiga’s sparring partner is the equally good Freddie Highmore, who plays a 17-year-old Norman.
The pilot kicks off with the death of Norman’s dad, seemingly by accident, in the garage of the family home. The opening moments lend themselves to us thinking Norman’s been drugged because he wakes up stumbling and time seems to have gotten away from him, but that’s not revisited. He gets Norma out of the bathroom to come see his dad on the floor and she’s not really moved by the sight of her dead husband until Norman falls apart.
Cut to six months later and they’re driving down a picturesque coast to a house and hotel combo that Norma picked up in a foreclosure. Those circumstances come back to bite her later when the former owner assaults her in the kitchen and she fights back. That sets in motion midnight room renovations, Normanâ€™s discovery of a girlâ€™s disturbing journal, and an awkward encounter with the sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) and his deputy (Mike Vogel).
Before all that, Norman makes friends at schoolâ€”first with a group of girls, led by Bradley, who would seem to be mean girls but so far actually aren’t, and then with Emily, a girl with Cystic Fibrosis who wheels around a sparkly oxygen tank. Also at school, OUaT‘s own Blue Fairy (Keegan Connor Tracy) as a language arts teacher whose suggestion that Norman engage in extracurricular activities elicits a dinner table tantrum from Norma.
In the midst of all that, we witness a very love/hate relationship between Bates mother and son. We don’t really get a background on what Norman or Norma’s relationship was with Mr. Bates, so I expect that to follow later. What we do get is that she’s very tactile with him when they’re getting along, which he’s not necessarily squeamish about, but when they fight, it’s full on rage. They also do a lot of self-loathing afterward, so yes, there is a treasure trove of psychology to unravel here.
The series filmed in Vancouver, and if I had to guess, uses the same coastal town as CW’s The Secret Circle, so it has that simmering, might-be-creepy seaside vibe down. That will also lend itself to some awesome supporting role casting.
The pilot sets up the basics for us, and gets the necessary who and how and what out of the way. If you hadn’t been told ahead of time that this was a modernized prequel, you wouldn’t really know that until we see Norman at the bus stop wearing ear buds, and Norma answering a cell phone. It has a very vintage lost-in-time (no pun intended to executive producer Carlton Cuse)Â feel to it.
The series as a whole is an interesting endeavor because we essentially know how it all ends. We start with the off-kilter family dynamic that just sort of happens when you have a single parent and an older child who steps into a partner role, but we havenâ€™t seen Norma cross a sexual boundary with him (yet). You can see, though, where that’s probably coming, and you can see, too, that Norman really wants to be normal, but is always pulled home to Norma.
And that teenage yearning is punished when the night he sneaks out is also the night Norma is attacked and it escalates so far because she’s by herself in the house. So, Normanâ€™s getting the â€œyou will be punishedâ€ thing reinforced even if itâ€™s not explicitly said to him. Itâ€™s also an interesting parallel that he finds the journal of a girl who would seems to have been imprisoned in the motel in unspeakable ways and here he is now, in his own prison.
A&E ordered 10 episodes of the first season without seeing a pilot, so they have very high hopes. I liked it and Iâ€™ll be curious to see whether audiences find it, since the majority of A&Eâ€™s programming isnâ€™t scripted. I hope they do find it, because everybody is doing very good work, and there’s nothing like this on TV right now.
Bates Motel premieres tomorrow night at 10/9 c. Hereâ€™s a sneak peek of the first six minutes:
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