Bates Motel (Pilot)

MARCH 23, 2013


Folks are always asking for me to give the HMAD treatment to one genre show or another, so I thought I'd offer up a few thoughts on the pilot to Bates Motel, which premiered a few days ago. It's executive produced by Carlton Cuse, who was one of the guys behind Lost, but this time we know he can't fuck up the ending, because Bates is a prequel show, focusing on Norman's teen years when his mother Norma was still alive, and when the episode begins they haven't even bought the motel that would become such an iconic presence in the horror genre. So Cuse can't do this to us again!

OR CAN HE? Not 30 seconds into the show we see an HDTV in the background, and a few other modern touches that let us know that this is the present day, and thus it can NOT be a canon "prequel" in any traditional sense - surely Norman would have a lot more trouble picking off victims when they had GPS and cell phones at their disposal at all times. And that's something that excites me; I saw some folks complaining about the fact that it wasn't directly in line with the movies, but (Cuse's track record notwithstanding) this means that the show can surprise us, not to mention conceivably go on forever if the ratings are good enough. I saw someone joke that the series finale would be Marion arriving at the motel, but this is actually a remake that's just using an earlier start point. I hate to use it as an example of anything, but it's more like Rob Zombie's Halloween where we got to see young Michael in the asylum for a while - it's presenting a new angle and building its own mythology, albeit hopefully it's more successful than Mr. Zombie was in terms of quality.

And while some may cry foul, I truly hope it DOESN'T follow the established story to the letter, and opts for something more akin to what Walking Dead is doing with regards to the source comic. It's hitting all the beats (prison, Governor, etc) but changing pretty much every detail (Sophia is still alive in the comic, for example), something that so far Bates doesn't seem to be doing (except for the time period) but doesn't mean it CAN'T. We haven't seen him yet, but Norman has a brother that I'm pretty sure was never mentioned in the movies, and if you compare to Psycho IV, which also had Norman as a teen, we can see that the two versions of the characters are different enough to let this be its own thing.

But on to what's important, especially since I'm sure some viewers have never seen the movies - is it any good? So far, yes. For starters, Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates is terrific casting; she's one of the most beautiful women in the world as far as I'm concerned, but she's also a terrific actress who excels at playing tough women you don't want to cross (see: Running Scared). Psycho IV explored a slightly incestuous angle, with Norman getting aroused when wrestling with her - if they decide to go that route here, we can enjoy the uncomfortable situation of not understanding why a guy would be attracted to his mom but having zero problem understanding why he'd be attracted to Vera Farmiga, letting us be just as confused as Norman. I mean, I'm sure at SOME POINT Norman's going to kill someone, but as of now he's just a confused kid that we root for as our hero (again, assuming someone's watching having never heard of Psycho - there's nothing to tip us off that he's a "villain", at least in this episode).

Norman himself is pretty great too; Freddy Highmore may be best known for the Tim Burton Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, but this can be his defining role if the show lasts. He's got a fascinating voice; it sounds like a mix between a normal kid's and an old man, and almost kind of pained when he's angry or upset. I don't know if it's just an odd side effect of hiding his accent (he's British) or an intentional choice, but I love it either way. It's like a great little tic that helps separate him from Perkins (and, goes without saying, Vaughn), and it didn't dawn on me until later but it's interesting that the other actor who played Norman as a teen - Henry Thomas - was also best known from a kid's movie when he was much younger, and now they've been out of the spotlight for a bit and back as an older teen. I'm always happy to see child actors keep working but also seemingly avoid being batshit insane like some others (ahem, Lohan), and it's just funny to see two of them have now played Norman goddamn Bates.

The new stuff works, too. They waste little time setting up a villain - the house/motel's previous owner, played by W. Earl Brown. He's not too happy about losing his family home to the Bates (via a bank foreclosure), and I hope you don't get too attached to him since he ends up dead by the episode's end. But I'm guessing either his family or the police will be very interested in knowing what happened to him and provide a long-running antagonist for our anti-heroes. There's also a schoolteacher who takes an interest in Norman, something that I'm sure will upset Mother as time goes on as she seems to hate the idea of Norman spending time with anyone except her. And the brother will be an issue I'm sure; we only hear him over a phone where we learn he's a deadbeat and that Mother doesn't want him around, but the actor is listed in the main credits so I'm sure he won't be absent for long.

A couple of things bugged me though, such as the cutesy names - characters named Carpenter and Romero? Come on guys, this is hack humor that belongs in a DTV zom-com, not in a serious show. There's also a rape scene that feels arbitrary and way too out of nowhere; it's the 2nd time we've seen the character and there's no hesitation on his part, even though he was not established as anything but an asshole. There ARE ways of getting us to a. instantly hate a male character and b. establish sympathy for a somewhat overbearing female character without resorting to rape - it comes off as cartoonish, almost. The pilot for Lost is one of the greatest achievements in serialized TV ever, as far as I'm concerned - I expected something a little less cliche and meaty from Cuse. There's also a quick bit at the end that I didn't know what to make of other than "Oh, they saw American Horror Story too!" - I hope it's explained next week as it was completely misplaced.

Otherwise, I'm on board. I can watch Vera read a phone book, so having her as Norma (and an equal presence to Norman's - she's not used sparingly, thank Christ) will keep me around as long as she is, at least. Plus Fringe is gone, so I need a new genre show to fill the hole. Oh wait, Hannibal! Well, in 10 days I'll have a little more free time :).

What say you?


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