Published Oct 24, 2013During the Paley Center Panel Discussion included with the Blu-Ray set of Bates Motel, a journalist asks series creator Carlton Cuse (Lost) where he derived the inspiration for making a reimagined prequel to Psycho. Candidly, he admits that Universal had already planned to reignite the franchise, hiring him and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) to flesh out a sustainable concept.
Typically, this sort of manufactured development would stunt the creative process, making it more of a standard job than a passion project. But, as Cuse points out, he and Ehrin immediately developed a collaborative sensibility and equilibrium that brought some excitement and vitality to the project. This would explain why such a risky project with so many built-in expectations and pre-emptive criticism is, for the most part, one of the more intriguing and disturbing shows on television.
It's not without its hiccups though. During the pilot episode, after Norman (Freddie Highmore) discovers his father dead in the garage and the story jumps ahead in time, the acquisition of the titular motel by mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) is summarized in a bout of exceedingly mealy, even clumsy exposition. Shortly thereafter, the basic conflict is introduced when the previous motel owner shows up, threatening Norma and her son, setting the stage for a peculiar town dynamic where the police turn a blind eye to criminality, leaving Norma — a tenacious force of nature — to take matters into her own hands.
Though the seasonal development of a drug ring sustaining the local economy is a tad sensationalized, as is the behaviour of the morally ambiguous local sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) and deputy (Mike Vogel), the focus and strength of the show always stem from the relationship between Norman and his mother. His rapid development of a romantic fixation on local hottie Bradley (Nicola Peltz) sets up an overall aggressive ambivalence towards the opposite sex, which is made duly disturbing by Norma's exceedingly jealousy and overt manipulation of the situation. Exacerbating this controlling, co-dependent dynamic are the many scenes where Norman's eyes linger on his mother's body, only a few episodes after he witnesses her being brutally raped.
What works about Bates Motel is its uncompromising vision of a borderline incestuous relationship between a mother and son. It's something that Farmiga, giving one of the most intense and intelligently conceived performances ever seen on television, is unafraid of exploiting, having a knack for visualizing a constantly calculating and considering mind behind her wide, oft-frantic eyes. When she asks Norman's Cystic Fibrosis-afflicted friend, Emma (Olivia Cooke), what her life expectancy might be — a question asked with nonchalant, discomforting aplomb — her body language immediately eases, knowing that she can have her son back within just a few years should something romantic develop.
Throughout the season, Norman's mental state deteriorates. He experiences blackouts and fits of rage that gradually worsen once Bradley rejects him and a teacher starts acting inappropriately towards him. This slow build of nervous tics and inconsistencies — something that creates problems early on when he hides the utility belt of the man his mother kills in self-defence under his bed as a trophy — intensifies the relationship between mother and son, generating some apropos foreshadowing while establishing just how a situation can escalate to where Psycho eventually went.
Even though some of the secondary storylines and the inclusion of a long-lost half-brother (Max Theriot) can feel a bit forced, the handling of the lead characters and the brilliant acting from Vera Farmiga keep everything in Bates Motel compelling and vital from beginning to end (Universal)