A&E’s first-season Bates Motel is daring to be different, much like Alfred Hitchcock dared with Psycho.
I expected the TV tale of Norman Bates – The Early Years to be just that: a lot of back story how our favorite shower stalker came to be … well, psycho.
And there’s plenty of that, to be sure, with plenty of satisfying nods to Hitchcock’s classic – the uber creepy house on the rise by the motel, the regular appearance of a large butcher knife as the weapon of choice, even little snippets of dialogue that echo the movie (“Mother,” in particular).
Freddie Highmore, who is 21, plays 17-year-old Norman with an elegance and even a tenderness that is startlingly disarming. It would have been easy – and banal – to portray him as Nerdy McNerd, but Highmore makes Norman not that much different from any 17-year-old struggling with the threshold of life: girls, identity, independence, loneliness, alienation, adult morality and childish wants. Even though Highmore clearly studied the late Anthony Perkins’s curiously odd portrayal of Norman (and even bears a faint resemblance to a very young Perkins) and has the mannerisms and the aura down cold, he plays that curious oddness exclusively within the confines of a teenager, one who hasn’t fully developed into the sexually and morally confused misogynist killer – yet.
But the show’s genius – and not to take anything away from Highmore – is that the show is terrifying, creepy and heartbreaking all at the same time. Vera Farmiga’s Norma is a barely constrained lunatic, part Lady MacBeth and part unhinged nut job, who heartlessly traumatizes her gentle son and manipulates everyone with whom she comes into contact. And her gentle son is creepy enough as it is, with an affection for this morally flawed, delusional woman that regularly makes the viewer uncomfortable. And his tender years and gentle nature can instantly flash into a frightening rage or a moment of despair so heartbreaking it’s hard to watch.
Through a slowly yet compelling evolution of incidents and events, we are getting much more than a simple back story about a killer with a Mommy complex. We’re seeing the unfortunate derailing of a life, young and promising, into a terrifying monstrosity. Not since Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (the book, not the movie) has this been done so skillfully.
It’s also compelling storytelling, and why it’s worth watching. Bates Motel is the latest in a line of TV series that, if not re-inventing our concept of a TV show, is certainly making watching the magic box more worthwhile. Maybe it’s the backlash to the reality-TV dreck that smothers network television and a response to an audience hungry for solid characters and stories. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Downton Abeey, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, et al, all have impressive ratings and die-hard fans.
Bates Motel may soon join them.