Watching “Bates Motel” is a fairly awkward experience. But the new series, a prequel of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock's film "Psycho, manages to hook the viewer despite its strangeness.
The pilot episode opens with the young Norman Bates finding his dead father’s body on the floor of his garage, which serves as the impetus for the series’ plot. Six months after his father’s death, his mother Norma packs everything up and moves her family from Arizona to California, where she has recently bought a motel. The pilot features all the creepy lines and creepy smiles that you would expect of a horror show, as well as a disappointing Freddie Highmore in a fairly nervous performance as Norman.
Though at times predictable and weighed down by its relationship to Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the show was at its most compelling when it explored aspects of the narrative not directly related to Norman Bates’ future as a serial killer. The pilot's focus seemed to be on the viewer’s introduction to the relationship between mother and son, chronicling Norman’s first few days at his new high school and the family’s adjustment to living in a new town.
The mother-son relationship between Norma and Norman is fairly odd. For example, when Norman comes home late from school, Norma gives an “after slaving away in the kitchen all day to make this nice meal, you come home late” speech that is more reminiscent of a husband-wife relationship than of one between mother and son—heightened by the uncomfortable level of sexual tension between Norma and Norman. The show’s pilot tackles the relationship between Norman and Norma in a way that expands on the summary given by the forensic psychiatrist at the end of “Psycho.”
The production team spared no expense in recreating the iconic Bates Motel setting. The show looks as if the mansion and motel were cut from “Psycho” and pasted into the present, adding a certain ambiguity to the time period in which “Bates Motel” takes place. From the old appliances to the old cars, to Norma’s dated wardrobe, all surrounded by an otherwise modern environment, it was hard to ascertain definitively the time period in which the story was taking place. It wasn’t until about eight minutes into the episode that I figured out it was set in present day. But executive producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin’s decision to set the show in the present works in the show’s favor. The contemporary setting will hopefully allow the show some creative leeway when it comes to managing the end point set by the movie “Psycho.”
“Bates Motel” is at its most compelling and riveting when it veers slightly off the path set by “Psycho.” As a prequel, the storyline is pretty much set. There is a designated end point that everyone knows. With this comes the problem of predictability. Far more interesting than the episode’s predictable climax is the introduction of Norman’s older brother Dylan, a character who is not mentioned in the original movie.