Oh, mama. If your taste runs to Twin Peaks-type perversity, murder and erotically charged mother-and-son relationships, there’s a good one tonight.
Bates Motel (A&E 9 p.m.) is a riff on the Psycho story so memorably told by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960 movie. As people of a certain age will know, in Hitchcock’s movie, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stops at the isolated, creepy Bates Motel, run by one Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Norman, it turns out, is an insane killer disguised as a shy, withdrawn guy. He is two personalities – both himself and the overbearing mother he has killed and, well, stuffed.
What this new series (produced by Carlton Cuse, who made Lost, and Kerry Ehrin, who made Friday Night Lights) sets out to do is explain how Norman ended up as the Norman in Psycho. It’s a homage and a prequel of sorts. But it’s set in the present and just takes the characters and runs wild with them.
And it’s good – a mess of Oedipal madness and more. There have been many knockoffs of the Psycho storyline, mostly cheaply-made slasher movies, but Bates Motel is very much a cable-drama version of the story, slow-burning, brooding and bent on exploring perversity with careful attention.
When things open, teenager Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), are about to start a new life after the death of Norman’s dad. Exactly how and why Dad died is left for future exploration. Mom has moved on by buying a motel in the little town of White Pine Bay. As she tells Norman, she will surely need his help fixing up the place and keeping it going. Then she shows him his bedroom and hers next door, and if you weren’t weirded out already, you are now.
Norma bullies her son, flirts with him and manipulates him into being her accomplice in acts that don’t seem to bother him. It’s a very tricky role to pull off, this mama, and Farmiga is up to it – there’s an intelligence to Norma, a woman let down by men, and the intensity of her devotion to her son is seethingly complex. There are scenes that are designed to make the viewer uncomfortable, but in the most subtle of ways. At the same time, one has sympathy for her, this single mom trying to run a business and keep her only son safe. Farmiga can transmit a barrel of neuroses in a glance or the casual sweep of her skirt.
The Twin Peaks connection is in the town of White Pine Bay. Norman isn’t there for long before a bevy of teenage girls arrive at his door offering to give him a ride to school. One sits on his lap in the crowded car. Just as the charming teenage girls in Twin Peaks hid their secret vices behind sweet smiles, these young women are too sweet to be true. And Norman knows that. There’s a party scene and school scenes and, throughout, it becomes clear that almost all the people in this town lead double lives. There is abundant corruption and, it turns out, this is the perfect setting to nourish the depravities that are dormant in Norman’s mind.
Things get even more twisted as Norman develops a crush on blond, popular gal Bradley (Nicola Peltz), while someone else has a crush in him – Emma (Olivia Cooke), who has cystic fibrosis and takes an oxygen tank everywhere. When Mom meets Emma, her opening conversational gambit is, "What’s your life expectancy, Emma?"
Bates Motel arrives at an interesting time. The Walking Dead, The Following and American Horror Story have illuminated the vast appetite for horror on TV, but it’s an adult kind of horror that’s thriving. You need to be very grown-up to connect with Bates Motel, to grasp the wit and the withering take on motherhood. Viewer discretion is seriously advised. Like your mother said, do what you’re told.
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