Sunday, March 17, 2013

Norman, Is That You? 'Bates Motel' is 'Psycho' New and Old

Welcome! Here you check in, but you don't check out. (Joe Lederer/A&E)
Beauty and the Beast. Hawaii Five-O. The Carrie Diaries. Prime Suspect. Elementary. It must be prime-time television, where everything old is being "reimagined" for another hopeful shot at ratings success. (WARNING: Whenever you see the word "reimagined," immediately think "recycled, threadbare concept I have seen at least once before.") If there are so many bright, cool, creative people in Hollywood, why are there so few completely original ideas?

It's because our lords of entertainment hunger for the one thing nobody on this earth is guaranteed: a surefire winner. Production costs being so astronomical these days, no network can afford to sire too many litters of dogs in its lineup. The prevailing theory is, if you already have some familiarity with a storyline or character you'll be much more willing to tune in to our new series, out of curiosity if no other reason, and join millions of your like-minded friends in the process. (This wisdom fails to take into account that shows like Duck Dynasty, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead may be runaway hits because there is nothing else like them on television, but I digress.)

Freddie Highmore as Young Norman, Vera Farmiga as Mom.
And now, one of the most iconic tales in all of moviedom has become a TV renovation project: Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 thriller Psycho, as "reimagined" in the new series Bates Motel premiering at 10 p.m. EST Monday, March 18 on A&E. (If you watched the 2012 biopic Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense, you're amazed that Psycho – itself based on the novel by Robert Bloch – ever got made in the first place, but again I digress.) Bates Motel presents as the prequel to Hitchcock's genre-defining film, probing the parent-child relationship between a 17-year-old Norman Bates and his flighty, borderline sociopathic mother, Norma, and the circumstances that played into his becoming the most famous fictional serial serial killer in history. (Hannibal, yet another "reimagined" series coming to NBC April 4, might disagree.)

Like different breeds of dogs, however, there are different sizes and shapes of these creatures. There are great reimaginings (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and horrible reimaginings (AfterMASH).

Bates Motel is an...OK reimagining.

I really want to like this show. Young British actor Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) is a brilliant cast as the teenage Norman, bearing an uncanny likeness to the late Anthony Perkins and exhibiting the angular, awkward, sheepishly cute demeanor one might have envisioned in the character as a schoolboy.

We never actually met Norman's mother – at least, not with her skin on – so in theory any actress could have played the role. Again, executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), two gentlemen whose work I admire, made an inspired choice with Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) as Norma Bates. Farmiga has an awful lot of foundation to pour in Monday's opener – she is, by turns, loving, overprotective, flirtatious, manipulative, secretive and confrontational – yet manages to pull it all off while being neither unappealing nor contrived. The series stays true to the setting and architecture of the Bates Motel in our collective memory, while blending in some breathtaking bayside scenery as this show ventures outside the confines of their property.

The big problem with Bates Motel is that it feels like a jumbled anachronism. The creators very much want it to be a contemporary series – we see iPhones, texting, BMW convertibles and wild, dope-smoking high school parties – but Norma and Norman, by their dress, their mannerisms, even some of their dialogue – seem firmly rooted in the time period of the Psycho movie decades ago. It's as if they were transplanted from another age to walk among us in modern times. "It makes my brain hurt," my wife said, trying to rationalize the two polar-opposite contexts. Mine was starting to throb a bit, too.

Master Bates, in the Dark. (All photos, Joe Lederer/A&E)
There is death within the first three minutes of the pilot (Norma's second husband, of unexplained causes) and two more graphically violent acts before the hour ends. Her spouse's demise prompts impulsive Norma to pack up lock, stock and favorite son, move to the dozy coastal village of White Pine Bay and buy a foreclosed, tumbledown motel. She has a second, older son, Dylan (Max Thieriot), but you won't meet him for a week or so. He's worth the wait.

"This is our chance to start over," she tells Norman.

"Maybe some people don't get to start over," he replies. "Maybe they just bring themselves to a new place."

Guys, we all should be so lucky as to be brought to this place. Filed under the category of "Things That Have Never, Or Will Never Happen to Me, Ever," while waiting for the bus to begin his first day of high school Norman is set upon by five beautiful classmates who pepper him with personal questions then whisk him away in the Bimmer. (What made him turn evil, anyway?) He's taken with the vivacious Miss Popularity, Bradley (Nicola Peltz), who sees him as "a beautiful, deep, still lake in the middle of a concrete world," but he's being pursued by quirky school loner Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke), whose lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis forces her to drag an oxygen tank around campus. She senses a kindred spirit in Norman. "Do you have some sort of chronic illness?" she asks him, looking almost disappointed by his response.

You'll also meet a creepy sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) and his smitten deputy (Mike Vogel) who views Norma as someone worth investigating. If you remember the eccentric '90s mystery Twin Peaks, it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons between it and Bates Motel; actually, this might have been easier to accept and appreciate as a "reimagining" of that series.

On our Glowing Box scale of 1-10, I give Bates Motel a 6. I encourage you to check in, however, out of curiosity if nothing else: how long you stay before checking out is entirely up to you.