We all know Psycho as the Hitchcock film that ruined showers forever for us. So far, Bates Motel, which is a loose prequel to the disturbing 1960 flick, is known as the show with the adorable Finding Neverland/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory actor all grown up. It's too early to determine whether the A&E series will be much more than that, but one thing is certain: it will never reach Psycho's level of horrifying.
Bates Motel follows teenager Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his controlling, twisted mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) as they move to a new town. The pilot episode opens with Norman seeming disturbed and rattled in his kitchen. The boy looks over at his parents' wedding photo on a wall and immediately dashes to another part of the house, where he finds his father dead. Norman weeps over the loss, but his mom doesn't seem so broken up. After all, this gives her an opportunity to move away and open a motel.
If you've seen Psycho, it's easy to watch the first scene and wonder whether Norman played any role in his dad's death. According to the preview for episode two, Norman's character is going to start having blackouts, and as Psycho fans know, nothing good can come from those.
Norman and Norma seem to take a liking to their new town and hotel, even though they get verbally eviscerated by the neighborhood drunk for barging in on his territory. Aside from the perpetually wasted, perverted creeper, everyone else takes to the Bates family, and they really like tall, boyish-looking Norman.
Norman is almost immediately accepted among the young ladies at his new school. Without having to say much at all, Norman is welcomed by a parade of pretty girls, and they even go knocking on his door to "study." He makes high school look so easy, which is hard to believe for someone with such a rocky, sinister home life. He becomes especially close to a female classmate tethered to an oxygen tank, and she can tell immediately that something is off about him.
Norman's overbearing mother, of course, isn't crazy about her son socializing with females, or people of any gender, really, until they've acclimated to their new town. This sounded like a lie to me, and Norman seems to see through his mother's claims as well.
It's only then that we see the two of them turn on each other. Though brief, their spat is powerful, mainly because Norman jumps out of his skin and treats his mom more like someone he's angry with than an authority figure who has just denied him something he wants. We can tell from the beginning that these two have an unconventional, borderline creepy relationship, with the mother casually dropping swear words in her son's presence, but here we see that their unique dynamic, while charming and contemporary, can be dark and unsettling.
Norman also disagrees with her way of handling serious situations, but when she admits to being a bad mother and that he deserves more than what she has to offer, he says she's wrong. Of course she's great, and of course he's happy with her. But how long can he be the strong one in the family? Not too long, as we learn in Psycho.
The first episode includes a murder and a rape, but neither of these scenes will keep viewers up at night as Psycho had and forever has the power to do. I'm not sure whether the show is capable of emulating the classic film's creepiness, and quite frankly, I don't think it's trying to get there. After all, no one wants to be scared all the time, and watching anything close to Psycho on a regular basis is bound to mess around with a person's mind. Bates Motel seems to be more of an explanation of what went wrong in Norman Bates' youth than an attempt to give viewers sleepless nights, and that's precisely what makes it so intriguing and watchable.
The show is definitely doing something right, and I'm thankful we now have a TV series that's a happy medium between seriously terrifying American Horror Story and the totally underwhelming 666 Park Avenue. I can't help wondering where Bates Motel has been all my life and why it took TV producers this long to create it.