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Bates Motel: Season 1

(A&E; US DVD: 17 Sep 2013)

Let’s make a rebooted and updated origin story for Norman Bates. Let’s put him in the present rather than in the ‘50s. Let’s stir in a bit of teenage drama with girlfriends, girlfriend possibilities and such.


It absolutely seems like an idea that would have died at the first pitch meeting and then given studio execs a hilarious story for every cocktail hour, ever, for the rest of their lives. And yet, it became a TV series that’s slated to return in 2014 for a second season. It’s a popular, if not exactly a critical, hit.


The Blu-ray set of season one allows you to see for yourself what happens when bad ideas come to life. Norma Bates and her son have moved to the town of White Pines after the mysterious death of Norman’s father. Buying up a motel property in foreclosure that comes complete with the iconic California gothic house looming over the landscape, Norma has begun a new life for her handsome young son.


Except that the first episode ends in a brutal murder. Norman takes his first serial killer trophy. And, of course, mother and son seem to have a bit of an unnatural attachment to one another.


Rebooting and prequeling Hitchcock might seem entirely repugnant to you. But in truth, the aura of Psycho carries with it enough cultural capital to make us at least interested in the origin of the madness. In fact, I was with the show during the first episode even as I kept thinking that this could have worked as a mini-series that used its time to go right down into the dark roots of the Bates family madness.


Unfortunately, the demands of building a series that the creators hope will live for several seasons forces the writers to dither about sub-plots and characters, and that makes its impossible for us to care. Norman has a half-brother who’s supposed to be the outcast even in this freak show of a family and yet the character seems like more or less a decent guy.


There’s an absurd “this little town’s got a dark secret” storyline in which we learn the deep dark secret by the second episode and its neither deep nor particularly dark, And, I can’t even believe I’m writing this, but the prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho also features a human trafficking sub-plot.


The acting may be the saving grace of this absurd little cultural experiment. Vera Farmiga is absolutely amazing in most of her scenes as Norma Bates. After this, plus her turn in The Conjuring, I think I would nominate her for actor best able to portray an attractive normal seeming woman who’s actually a demented moonbat.


The scenes between Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norman are, as they should be, the best parts of the show. Their interactions are always taunt and disturbing and at least lays the groundwork for some of the ways the show might improve. One of the issues of season 1 is simply that nothing here gets weird enough, at least weird enough to explain the creation of a monster. Now and again, Farmiga summons enough crazy (such as in episode five where she’s obviously jealous about her son’s first sexual experience) that we feel we are watching the creation of a monster.


Hitchcock fans will get an occasional pleasing chuckle. Norma changes shirts in front of Norman and seeing his very Anthony Perkins-like expression of embarrassment say “Norman, this isn’t weird, I’m your mother.” A couple of shots of the Bates Motel showers homage to you-know-what. We even get to see the origin of Norman’s interest in taxidermy, though its sadly more sentimental than creepy.


But mostly its just a mélange of TV drama tropes with Psycho as more of the brand than the inspiration. It’s twisty and turny but it’s not even close to work in the tradition of Hitchcock.


Four deleted scenes are included with the Blu-ray set, four scenes mostly extracted from the latter half of the season. It seems a strange choice that one of them, in which Farmiga goes full-on raging lunatic and then suddenly reassumes her measured mask of placidity, ended up on the cutting room floor.


The most interesting special feature is a Paley Center panel discussion with creators and cast. The panel discusses the origin of the show and the obvious problems with rebooting Psycho. It appears from the tenor of the discussion that the writers brought a number of different ideas that didn’t entirely mesh.  We certainly see this problem at work in the series.


The actor’s insights suggest some more problems. Highmore alludes to the fact that there’s an ongoing debate about how to represent the relationship between Norman and Norma. Both seem obviously uncomfortable, as they should be, with the iconography of Psycho hanging over them.


I should also mention that there’s a cringe-worthy moment during the panel when a comparison, indeed a “spiritual kinship” is suggested between Bates Motel and Twin Peaks. Needles to say, Twin Peaks this is not.


Its darkly satisfying to think about the utter contempt with which the Master of Suspense himself would have held this series. Of course, homage to Hitchcock is the last thing on the executives at Universal’s minds.


Right now, horror is having a moment of triumph on TV. The Walking Dead has received critical and popular acclaim and American Horror Story is on its way to becoming a scenery chewing American institution. So, of course, execs are rolling the dice on various reboots, with discussions of series based on classic horror franchises ranging from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist.


So it’s no wonder Psycho got a look and a green light and it’s no wonder it turned out so badly. At the very least, maybe it will prompt a few of its viewers watch Psycho. Or, sadly, maybe it will make more than few decide the source material for such a farrago isn’t worth their time.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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