Bates Motel – Pilot
Though i hadn’t heard overly positive things about this program its cast and concept intrigued me enough to give it a peek: an ongoing prequel to perhaps the greatest psychological-horror movie of all time Psycho, a series showing how Norman Bates got off to such a sick start and what his mother was like before he stuffed her. Now, i didn’t necessarily think that this was a fantastic idea for a show – in fact I struggled to imagine how it could work as one in the long run – but it was one that fascinated me. I’ve now seen the pilot and have to say that it turns out the plot of the finished product is even more intriguing than I had imagined because its somehow a prequel set fifty-odd years after the original property, a feat it pulls off without a single trace of sci-fi or time-travel.
I’m not normally someone who gives much of a damn about when a show is set – I don’t, for instance, have any interest in what year each season of Mad Men will take place – but I really struggled with it here and cannot help but think that its choice in era was an error. Executive Producer
Carlton Cuse has said that bringing the story into the future was freeing, that now things won’t necessarily have to end as we expected them too, that the plot isn’t predestined but if this is the case then is it really a prequel? It’s like the show wants to have its Psycho and eat it too (or have its mother and kill her too), to cash in on the common knowledge and inherent shorthand that comes with that connection without chaingin themself like a slave to it. An admirably bold aspiration to be sure and if it could pull it off also a brilliant one, but at this early stage it served more to confuse than liberate; the resulting show crazy but only sometimes in a good way.
Even if one is somehow able to separate themselves from their knowledge of Hitchcock’s original and think only of the show as standing alone then time would still sick out in a strange way because only certain scenes have abandoned that sixties style, namely those that star Norman solo. Whenever he is on his own – at school, with school friends or at a party – the show looks and feels like any other teen drama on the air, but as soon as his mother Norma enters it regresses back into a period piece: the clothing, decor, dialogue and tone distinguishable from the original only by virtue of their colour. This though is a simplification of the shows style, me trying to make theoretical sense of something that is simply messy; the possible meanings of such a juxtaposition are potent but in practice it actually just feels like a miscommunication between set-decorators.
At its core though this is a character-piece and so the props are just pomp in comparison to the core relationship between Norman and Norma. Does that work as it should? Well it’s eerie yes – more so if you watch the show with your own mother as I foolishly did – but not yet as compellingly it could be; there needs to be more to it than the simple surface sickness if it is to serve as the basis for a serialised show. When he quotes Jane Eyre to her, when she stops him from seeing other girls, when they commit and cover up their first murder it makes you feel what it should, disgusted, but for every one of these obviously wrong moments there are two that seem less sure of what they are aiming to evoke, some of them seemingly trying to get us to sympathise with and care for the pair which is impossible given our prescience.
The other issue here stems from the fact that taken singly the characters are also quite problematic, in that their perspectives and level of psychosis are unclear. Both Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore do decent work with what they are given, her maybe more than him, but because what they are given is so mixed in its messages I couldn’t tell you whether or not one or both of them have committed a cold-blooded murder prior to the pilot or if their sinister vibe is simply due to my informed assumptions. This is an issue because it confuses the character arcs: for example is Norman intended here to be an innocent boy corrupted by his bi-polar mother or is she simply a slightly off-kilter woman who happens to lean too hard on a son who snaps spectacularly as a result? I didn’t know who It was safe to sympathise with and so I simply didn’t, the show keeping me at a distance.
Then there is the final shot of the pilot which is perhaps one of the most literal ‘glimpses’ that a show has ever given us elsewhere in its universe. It is over far too fast for most to ascertain anything from it but it does provide a number of intriguing possibilities for those with a more analytical mindset. One of these is that the small town contains more than one serial killer, that like Dexter before it Bates Motel will have its sympathetic slaughterer either capturing or co-operating with the man from room number four, the man who likes to draw. This tease, like so much of the show, is promising because it hints at how the show could continue week-in week-out but also like so much of the show its still unsure what this really is and whether it will actually work.
It’s a rather redundant way to end a review but I’m honestly unsure of whether or not Bates Motel is worthy of a recommendation because it still seems uncertain of what it is and so there is no way that I can know. There is a possibility, and given the people involved it’s a good one, that the show does solidify as the season ticks into its second half but there is an equal chance that it goes off the rails by then or is culled from future schedules entirely. Ironically Bates Motel is a prequel with an uncertain future, it shows us the shaping of a serial-killer but is still in the process of being shaped itself, this pilot feels like something of a prequel to the show proper and just as Norman’s future is now unclear so is its. We shall simply have to watch and see.