BATES MOTEL Review

A&E is not particularly known for their dramas. They’ve had a few scripted series up to this point, like The Glades, Breakout Kings, and The Cleaner, but they are formulaic crime dramas, not a complex, serial show that deserves attention and praise. With the premiere of BATES MOTEL on March 18th, that changes.

BATES MOTEL, as one might expect, is set at the same location as the classic Hitchcock film Psycho, and looks perfectly in sync with the earlier work. This television series is a prequel to the movie, set many years earlier. As the first episode, “Fist You Dream, Then You Die” opens, Norman Bates’ (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) father dies, and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air, The Departer), moves them to a small town where she has purchased a motel and the house behind it.

The elements one would expect from such a project are immediately present. Norman is eager to please and mostly obedient. Norma is controlling and manipulative. The motel itself is cursed from the beginning, it having been taken away from a family that has long owned the land by the bank, and a descendant of that family is not happy to let it go. The tone is creepy and disturbing, but not too obviously so.

The cast does a superb job. Highmore is the right mix of good son and budding psychopath. He is trying to be a normal kid, but that’s not the way his mother has raised him, nor does she let explore that option. Farmiga captures the portrait of the type of mother that would name her son after herself. The way she coldly receives the news of her husband’s death, then later handles Norman, is compelling to watch, and surely she is making a mark on the television landscape, owning the role.

Right away, death also comes to the Bates Motel. There are strong hints that Norma might have offed her own husband, and (very slight spoiler) there will be a second body by the end of the first hour. I don’t know if BATES MOTEL is a horror show, per se, and if there will continue to be serial killings throughout; after all, no one suspects Norman long after his mother passes on. But the stage is set for what must be.

Much of the purpose of the series will be to take Norman from normal child to cold-hearted murderer. We see he has a possible support system, with girls who want to be his friends and a teacher offering mentorship. But we also see how the boys don’t take a shine to him, and how Norma cuts him off from social interaction. And then, witnessing what Norma involves him in, we see the seeds of things to come.

Not that Norma is totally obvious in her machinations. To a viewer at home, sure, we can tell she’s a horrible mother because we see it all. To a character in the show, outside of the family, she may seem a little strict, but not someone to worry about. At least, not yet.

The supporting cast is just as good as the two leads, which helps with the overall effect. After all, BATES MOTEL is set in a town, so there must be townspeople. These fellow residents pleasantly round out the world in a very authentic way without distracting or mandating plots of their own. They include Nestor Carbonell (Lost) as the Sheriff, Keegan Connor Tracy (Once Upon a Time) as Miss Watson, Norman’s teacher, and Olivia Cooke as an odd classmate. Upcoming guests (according to IMDB and Wikipedia) will include Jere Burns (Justified), Mike Vogel (Pan Am), Richard Harmon (The Killing), and even Kate Winslet (Titantic, Mildred Pierce).

“First You Dream, Then You Die” is a lot of setup, especially the beginning, but manages to not feel too much like it is. We enter at a critical moment in Norman’s life, one that will put him on a certain path, and he already begins going down that path in the premiere. The start of the action is not sudden or jarring, and yet, this pilot does a good job of actually getting into the meat of the story. Credit writing, directing, and production, as well as the performers, because this is an excellent pilot in just about every way imaginable, with a definite cinematic quality.

My only slight complaint is that there is a bit of heavy handedness present. “First You Dream, Then You Die” begins with Norman listening to dialogue on a television talking about a grown man living with his mother. Norma wears the same dress and hairstyle to dinner that the corpse at the end of the film is sporting. But while it may have been better to spread out such references through multiple episodes, instead of sticking a bunch in the premiere, it does effectively tie this project to its source material, so it’s not totally unwarranted.

BATES MOTEL deserves attention, and Highmore and Farmiga will hopefully get some Emmy credit. Which means you probably won’t want to miss a show this good. I certainly won’t.