A&E’s Bates Motel


Some thoughts about season one of A&E’s Bates Motel

Bates Motel Norman Norma Freddie Highmore Vera Farmiga

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been one of those stories that never disappeared. Not only because of the story and characters, but also because it was a landmark film and has become Hitchcock’s most famous work.

That creepy house at the top of the hill overlooking the Bates Motel has been revisited time and time again since audiences were first introduced to it in 1960.

Over two decades later star Anthony Perkins returned as Norman Bates in a series of sequels to the film. This clearly came about because of the popularity of slasher films during the decade – which one could argue Psycho gave birth to.  Hitchcock died in 1980, so he obviously had nothing to do with any of the sequels when Norman returned to his old motel starting in 1983.

I always thought Psycho II wasn’t that bad actually. Plus, there was the novelty of seeing Perkins return as Norman. The rest of the sequels I won’t comment on.

Norman Bates Anthony Perkins SNLWe got the recent Hitchcock starring Anthony Hopkins that focuses on the director making Psycho. Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in 1998. Back in 1987 a pilot movie was made titled Bates Motel. That was something of a sequel, where Bud Cort somehow inherited the Bates house after Norman had died. It crashed and burned quickly.

Countless parodies and homages have popped up through the years. My favorite was Perkins himself lampooning his most famous role in an early Saturday Night Live skit entitled ‘The Norman Bates School of Motel Management’.

I recall an episode of Amazing Stories where a teen movie fan is obsessed with Psycho. His bedroom is decorated with all sorts of posters and pictures from the film. He even goes so far as having his wake-up alarm be Janet Leigh screaming her head off as she’s getting murdered. He somehow goes back in time and ends up as a guest at the Bates Motel.

Bates Motel Universal Studio Tour NomanOf course we have the hokey Universal Studio tour of seeing the Bates house. The part of getting to see the house sounds cool, but I don’t like the silly show they feel the need to put on to try to make it even greater.

The way I hear it you’re sitting in the tram, driving past the house and motel and then happen to see ‘Norman Bates’ putting a body in a trunk of a car. This is supposed to be shocking. It’s like you’re in the movie all of a sudden! Norman notices a tram-full of people who have witnessed him carrying a dead body and he starts running after you with a big knife.

I think I would be laughing my ass off at this. They could save the little touristy production numbers for other folks. Sorry, they don’t impress me.

Along with all of that there is of course the steady praise, analysis and discussion about Psycho that has filled books and conversations for film fans ever since its release in 1960.

Bates Motel House Norma NormanWhen I heard A&E was doing a prequel series to Psycho I was extremely apprehensive. I was already rolling my eyes when I found out it was going to be set in modern day. It just seemed like a tired idea of taking one of those popular old stories from the past and playing it out in present day.

Plus, it sounded like another one of those projects that takes an already established character or story and tries to go back to the very beginning. This is something that’s been happening A LOT!  We already know who these people turn out to be, so now they’re going to track their evolution to how they become that person.

There’s no shortage of this. So Bates Motel seemed like just another idea that popped out of the Remake/Reboot/Re-imagining pot.

I was envisioning a murder of the week kind of lame show. Each week some guest star checks into the Bates Motel and more often than not they end up in the back swamp before the end credits roll. They’d probably inevitably have a lot of shower references and nods to the original film. I kept seeing the pictures of young Norman listening to his ipod and was wondering if he had any Bernard Herrmann on any of his playlists.

Bates Motel A&E Norma NormanNow after watching the first six episodes I have to say – Bates Motel is pretty good!

Bates Motel is not what I was expecting. It’s a very well acted, well written show. The characters that populate the coastal town of White Pine Bay, Oregon all have something going on that’s compelling and is a catalyst for drama with the other characters. The show has been a real pleasant surprise.

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and 17-year old Norman (Freddie Highmore) leave their roots in Arizona after the accidental death of Norman’s father. They buy a house overlooking a rundown motel they set out to renovate.

Not soon into their stay some blood gets spilled which now has Norma and Norman looking over their shoulders. Norma’s other son Dylan (Max Thieriot) unexpectedly arrives which creates additional friction. Not to mention Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) begins to get suspicious about this new Bates clan.

Bates Motel Norman NormaI don’t want to go into too much more detail of what transpires after they arrive. The fun of the show is seeing the characters react to the surprising twists and how those revelations affect where the story moves after they arise. Needless to say the “new beginning” Norma had hoped to have quickly falls apart as circumstances escalate and the tension presses down on all the characters.

The entire cast is really great. The role of Norman’s mother could have easily been an over-the-top domineering mother ala Mommie Dearest or something. She has her moments, but the more unsettling ones are shown in more subtle ways by Framiga.

Offhand remarks such as her comment, “Boys take their father’s name all the time”. Her petty jealously when she’s not the focus of Norman at every given minute. The way she bluntly grills Norman’s high school friend Emma (Olivia Cooke) who’s suffering from cystic fibrosis. She and Highmore play extremely well off each other.

Highmore has the seemingly impossible task of portraying a character that is so firmly associated with Perkins. I was surprised at how well he overcomes it. He’s a quiet, polite kid who really seems like an ordinary teen you wouldn’t think much was going on with. I guess that’s how it usually happens, like the old saying ‘it’s the quiet ones you have to watch’.

Bates Motel Norman BradleyHis face can shift from innocence to disturbed very well. So he’s kind of playing Norman as someone who can end up from one extreme or another. Other than some similar wardrobe choices and some slight stammering by Highmore here and there, it doesn’t seem like the show is too concerned with trying to match Perkins interpretation of the character and are just presenting their Norman in their own way.

So far Bates Motel has gotten a positive reaction and has attracted a large number of viewers. It’s given A&E a nice hit show. It’s the first time I’ve watched that channel in a long time. I think the last time I tuned into it was to watch Steven Seagal: Lawman! Not surprisingly A&E has announced they renewed Bates Motel for Season 2.

The show has been compared quite a bit to Twin Peaks, Although I had never watched that show I think I understand the comparisons. We learn more and more about this small town and some of the sinister things happening behind closed doors, which now all the Bates’ find themselves embroiled with.

Bates Motel House DrawingAs the scope of the story expands we meet new characters, most of them aren’t who they first present themselves as and they have their own motives and secrets they’d rather keep to themselves.

One pet peeve I’ve had with Bates Motel is the text message scenes. Every now and then Norman will get a text from Bradely (Nicola Peltz) the girl he’s smitten with. The camera cuts down to his phone and it’s hard to read the text that Norman is reacting to. It gets pretty frustrating. They have to figure out a better way to shoot this text stuff. Either zoom in on the text so it’s easy to read or do something like the BBC’s Sherlock series is doing and just put the text up on the screen so we can clearly get clued in on the conversation. Come on!

In a way the show is interesting enough that they didn’t even need to hook onto an association with Psycho. It probably would have worked just as well had this been an entirely new batch of characters and just a random house that they moved into. I suppose it made selling the idea of the show a bit easier. It sounds much more intriguing if you say to someone – ‘Psycho prequel’ rather than ‘a weird and ominous little Oregon town’.

Had it been a completely original story it would have given them more freedom and left things up in the air, given it more mystery as to where all of this would end. We already know where Norman is headed. So the only thing they can do is make that journey as interesting as possible. And so far Bates Motel is doing just that.


3 thoughts on “A&E’s Bates Motel

  1. Fine, you convinced me…I shall check it out sometime! Not sure which horror anthology you are talking about with the obsessive PSYCHO fan, but it sounds cool. I've always given a pass to PSYCHO II as well, but the Gus Van Sant remake? Ugh!

    1. Fortunately a friendly horror fan knew the exact episode I was referring to and informed me it's from the second season of Amazing Stories – an episode entitled 'Welcome to My Nightmare'. Unfortunately it's not available on dvd. Dammit!

      Yeah, give Bates Motel a chance. I was very skeptical of the idea, but the show has hooked me. I'm anxious to see the remainder of this season and am relieved it's going to be coming back for season two.

  2. Millions of people over several decades saw Martin Balsam as the private investigator Detective Milton Arbogast who Gets Killed on the Stairs in "Psycho" (1960). And here he was, 34 years later, playing his every scene from the original as a gag in 1994's The Silence of the Hams aka Il Silenzio dei Prosciutti where I find Balsam's appearance amazing. His physical appearance, too. He's a fair sight more elderly and frail than he was before, but he takes his staircase fall ("Again??!!") yet again with grace and humor. Intriguing: this was made by its star, Italian comedian Ezio Greggio noted for his movies and his collaboration with Mel Brooks – Martin Balsam died in Italy about a year later. Balsam had appeared in many other Italian-made films. Was this film made in Italy?

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