Unbeknownst to all but the most dedicated of TV viewers, NBC tried making a TV series out of director Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1987. That aborted version of “Bates Motel” starred Bud Cort (Harold and Maude) as Norman Bates’ roommate at the lunatic asylum, who gets out and reopens his kill-crazy pal’s old roadside haunt. For better or worse (mostly the former), the pilot movie (still unavailable on DVD) never got picked up for a full series. Now A&E is trying again, rebooting writer Robert Bloch’s familiar oedipal plotline as a weekly cable series.
The show, both a prequel and a modern-day remake of the book/movie, stars Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush) as our teenaged Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up in the Air) as the infamous Mrs. Bates. The story finds mother and son moving to coastal Oregon to start over after Mr. Bates meets an untimely and accidental (yeah, right) death. The casting is spot-on. Farmiga does manipulative and domineering with a light touch, while Highmore projects the delicate sensibilities and gangly bearing of a young Anthony Perkins.
The show, overseen by “Lost” producer Carlton Cuse, deftly mixes old and new. With its cell phones and iPods, the show is clearly set in modern day. But the mid-century sets and fashions give it a pleasingly retro feel. Tonally speaking “Bates Motel” mixes snippets of “American Horror Story” and “Twin Peaks.” It’s eerie, mysterious, kinky, gruesome, stylish and intense, but lacks the more surreal flourishes of those earlier series. Creators have expanded the original story’s scope, keeping Mrs. Bates and her troubled son at the center of the action, while picking through the town’s other characters and settings for more curious goings-on—meaning we can’t quite tell who all our psycho killers are just yet.
Traditionalists may find the modern retelling a tad sacrilegious. Making Mrs. Bates a more active participant in her son’s murderous enterprises does violate the spirit of Bloch’s original somewhat. To some, the sexual quotient may feel like it’s been upped as well. Mrs. Bates, for example, seduces the hunky deputy sheriff, while young Norman attracts plenty of female attention with his “wounded animal” vibe. But the 1960 original was quite scandalous for its time, so twisted sexual shenanigans aren’t at all out of place in this tale. Probably the most glaring addition is young Norman’s amped-up high school drama. There are moments when “Bates Motel” feels a bit CW/ABC Family-ish. But the smooth writing and credible acting never sinks things anywhere near the melodramatic level of “Gossip Girl”/“Pretty Little Liars.”
Out of the gate “Bates Motel” is well-crafted, nicely cast and packed with enough deadly intrigue to lure viewers back for a second and third view. How well the storylines hold up over time remains to be seen. Can the tale of a family who kills together work for multiple seasons? Hard to say. Right now, at least, there’s no reason to check out of this creepy motel.