Who in their right mind would want to see a prequel to Psycho? Sequels and remakes have been attempted, but have failed miserably recapturing the original’s magic. If Gus Van Sant can’t come out looking good when playing Alfred Hitchcock, then why even bother? A producer and writer from the show, Lost honcho Carlton Cuse, attended this year’s Southwest by Southwest to both tell us and show us why, premiering the show’s pilot to a few hundred people.
It’s fair to say he answered the question of “who cares?” swiftly, mainly because of the prowess of Vera Farmiga, helping to bring real drama to the show’s key relationship. The pilot has a good deal of set up, but it still allows for smaller, more nuanced moments to tells us everything we need to know about Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mother’s dynamic.
Every minute we see of Norman and his mother, Norma, has a compelling dichotomy. One the one hand Norma is controlling, erratic, unfair, and clingy, but, on the other side of the coin, she is sweet, caring, and vulnerable, a woman who obviously just loves too much. Norman has the same issue, telling his mother how they were “meant to be together” and how “she’s his whole life”, a scene that is both heart-warming and downright creepy at the same time. “A modern day tragedy,” is how Cuse describes it, and it’s easy to see through the set up how it’ll get to that tragic finale.
The show transitions into that modern setting slyly. The opening scene, which is slightly over-the-top, has a timeless quality. Some viewers may think we are back in the 1950s, but then Bates Motel, and its two leads, find themselves in a modern world that doesn’t share Velma’s ideas or morals. These characters would fit right in during that 1950s setting, but in today’s context, they stick out as a bunch of weirdos. The good thing is they are weirdos that aren’t all that difficult to empathize with. Norman is a wallflower who has never been allowed to feel comfortable in his own skin around anyone other than his mother, while Norma is an independent woman consistently having to start over. For the time being, they are seriously flawed individuals, not the atypical murderers we know they’ll — or Norman, anyway — become.
There is a total of 10 episodes in this first season, and it looks like the show will lean more into horror as the show goes on. Hopefully the scares that do come about are superior to the one we get in the pilot. There is a rape scene which is as horrifying as it should be, but it comes from an extremely forced subplot. What worked best in this pilot wasn’t the suspense, but the relationship between Norman and Noma and seeing a kid like Norman interacting with a world that isn’t controlled by his mother. The sole place not featuring his mother is High School, which Norma attempts to domineer as much as possible, not letting him hangout with girls or join the track team. These scenes can be comedic, but they are surprisingly sad as well. But, according to panel’s special guest, don’t expect any grand Lost or Friday Night Lights tearjerking moments in this season of Bates Motel.
What makes the A&E pilot stand apart from fellow Psycho iterations, besides the absence of outright horror, is the refreshing absence of fan-service and homage, which is exactly what Cuse wants, ”I didn’t want to do a homage or a remake. There is no reason to do that, since nobody is going to do that better than Alfred Hitchcock.” Right you are, Mr. Cuse. Anyone with qualms about a Psycho prequel should see Bates Motels‘ intentions in the pilot, quieting many of their fears. This isn’t really a precursor trying to replicate Hitchcock, but instead combine the strengths of Twin Peaks, Lost, and Friday Night Lights, which is how Cuse sees the show. If the rest of season one follows that formula, expect Bates Motel to be a show worth following.
Bates Motel premieres on A&E on March 18 at 10/9c.