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A year ago A&E launched their ambitious television adaptation of film’s most notorious killer, Norman Bates. Fifty-three years after the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic thriller Psycho (1960), the concept of the television prequel was met with mixed reviews. The beloved film already suffered three sequels and one truly awful shot-for-shot remake, starring none other than Vince Vaughn. When I had first heard about this television adaptation I was reluctant to watch another ham-fisted attempt at tapping into the original thrill of unraveling the mystery of the Bates Motel. What these sequels failed to do was to get at the heart of what made Psycho interesting: Who/or what made Norman Bates kill? The real terror of the film that lingered long after the credits was not the murder, but the maddening question of the interrogation. Why?
The series begins with a seventeen year old Norman Bates and his young attractive mother Norma, leaving their home in Arizona and Norman’s recently deceased father, for the sleepy town of White Pine Bay and the newly branded Bates Motel. The setting remains intentionally ambiguous in time in the beginning of the pilot, toying with our sensibilities opening on a black and white film on Norman’s television and later transitioning to Norma’s vintage Mercedes. Although it becomes a clear that it's a modern adaptation as soon as Norman takes out his IPhone at the bus stop. This was my first pause for concern. A modern adaptation that was also a prequel for Psycho seemed unnecessarily complex, and perhaps a forced attempt to distance this story from the inspiration. The show similarly has a love-hate relationship with references to the Hitchcock classic. From similar shot compositions, hiding the first casualty of the show behind the shower curtain, to an otherwise pointless dialogue about taxidermy, there seems to be a conflict between a transparent appreciation for the original film and the audience expectation for not-so-subtle homage. Although, that is a somewhat forgettable aside given the very uncomfortable and distasteful sexual assault that occurs between Norma and the disgruntled previous owner of the motel in the pilot. Norman is shaped in part by witnessing the event as well as participating in the murder and subsequent cover up. While I understand the intention of this story arc which drives the first season, the scene in question was one of the most horrific things I've seen on cable television.
The storyline takes a very distinct turn from the film in the second episode when Norman’s older estranged brother Dylan is introduced. His abrupt hatred for his mother seems fairly unbelievable at first, but the complexity of his character and the tension between him and Norman builds as the show progresses. The first episode struggles with its identity but it comes into its own by the third and develops into a Twin Peaks-esque thriller beyond the coupling of the Bates family to a greater mystery of a seemingly white-picket town with very dark secrets. The general idea of the show seems to be that Anthony Hopkins’ “Norman” as we know and love was not just a product of an overbearing mother and a violent sexual perversion, but of an entire community that indulges in a hidden sex trade among other transgressions. Violence towards young women is not an original motif in murder mysteries on television by any means, but it does add a logical stepping-stone to Norman's progression into the madness that is Norman Bates. Although a secret Chinese sex slave trade in a seaside Oregon town seems somewhat unbelievable, the frightening resonance of sex and violence within the walls of the Bates Motel works surprisingly well with Norman's story arc.
The greatest strength of the series is the strange and often Oedipal relationship between Norman and his mother. While this is the main explanation given for Norman’s behavior in the film, the way it plays out in the series is wonderfully surprising at times. She is controlling and alluring, but also very warm and oddly reasonable most of the time. Perhaps, I like Norman, am easily manipulated by her charms, but I found myself never feeling entirely pulled out of the show by her behavior. Also the uncomfortable sexual chemistry between Norman and his mother is very subdued, which makes it almost creepier. Every time Norma dismissingly utters, "Norman, I'm your mother" in response to a mildly tense interaction between the two of them it makes me shudder. The show straddles the line between a closeness between mother and son that have suffered a mutual trauma, and a protective and possessive behavior mixed with a displaced sexual tension that both fascinates and repulses. The lurid town of White Pine Bay and its cast of unsavory characters ultimately pale in comparison to the engrossing Bates family drama in the center of it all.
The Bates Motel is finishing up its second season with the season finale premiering on A&E on May 5th, 2014.