As with Hannibal, the moment Bates Motel was announced, you could feel critics getting ready to seethe and denounce the series as a travesty, as well as preparing to set up an underground webcam so we could all watch Hitchcock spinning in his grave. However with both shows they ended up eating their words.
Bates Motel is a prequel to Psycho, but it smartly ensures it can’t be too directly compared to the 1960 classic as it’s set in the modern world, although a slightly heightened world where everyone looks like they could have just fallen out of the 1950s. It also makes sure it pays homage to its source in both its setting (the motel and house are an exact replica of the original) and central characters, while doing enough to strike out on its own so you’re not just wishing years would pass and Marion Crane would to turn up at Norman’s motel.
In the show, Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) is a 17-year-old who, six months after the death of his father, is dragged by his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), to a new town where’s she’s bought a motel out of foreclosure. As she’s keep saying, she wants to start over, although that’s not the first time Norman has heard that. They haven’t been there long when the old owner turns up, furious that the bank has taken his family’s property. He attacks Norma and rapes her, before being bashed over the head by Norman and stabbed to death by Norma. She decides they shouldn’t go to the police and should instead dump the body.
However Bates Motel is not just about the mother and son who become so vital to Hitchcock’s movie – although their slightly twisted relationship is at the heart of things – as it opens things up to the nearby town and introduces a half-brother for Norman in the form of Dylan (Max Thieriot). He hates Norma, who hasn’t even bothered to tell her oldest son they’ve moved, but he turns up after his loses his job and needs somewhere to crash.
There’s also the local police, including Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), who is soon sniffing around Norma over the disappearance of the old owner of the motel. He’s also investigating people being burned to death in the town, including the father of a girl Norman develops a crush on. However Norma may have found an ally in Romero’s deputy, Zack Shelby (Mike Vogel). As Zack and Norma get closer, Norman starts to suspect the policeman has some very dark secrets, although the first signs of his psychosis mean it’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s just in Norman’s head.
As with many modern series, Bates Motel does sometimes have a tendency to simply pile up the mysteries rather than fully move the plot forward, but as it builds through its first 10 episodes, it certainly keeps you watching and pulls you into its dark, strange world.
Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore are perfectly cast. Norma is the queen of passive-aggression and guilt trips, who you know genuinely loves her son and wants to protect him, even if you can feel what she’s doing is pushing him in the dark direction that will eventually consume him. Norman meanwhile is mostly a rather sweet, normal high school kid, who’s frustrated by his mother’s over-protection and predatory instincts whenever a girl approaches her son. However there are more than a few hints at the madness and darkness that lies. It’s a smart way to make him very similar to Anthony Perkins’ original Norman Bates, while also giving him plenty of personality of his own.
The show looks great – something that’s really brought out on Blu-ray – with a lot of attention paid to the production design, making it feel almost like the real world but also just tipped over into a heightened existence where the events of the show don’t seem too extreme. Unfortunately there’s not a huge amount on the special features front – just some deleted scenes and a cast & crew discussion – but thankfully the 10 episodes are strong enough to make this worth watching without the need for a load more bells and whistles.
Overall Verdict: Even Hitchcock fanatics may be surprised by how much they enjoy Bates Motel, which pays tribute to the original Psycho while expanding the world its set in. It certainly shows that a boy’s best friend is still his mother.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac