The PSYCHO films are such a cultural touchstone that it’s surprising that it took so long to be relaunched for a new generation to run into the ground. Even more surprising is that it’s been revived by A&E, the network mostly known at this point for providing an outlet of real-life tragic situations for audiences to laugh at and feel better about themselves in the likes of “Intervention” (addiction), “Storage Wars” (repossession of property) and “Criss Angel – Mindfreak” (being Criss Angel). The original conceit of being an “arts & entertainment” network has been abandoned since 2008, when a programming snafu inadvertently caused the airing of a Bud Light commercial featuring an opera.
But it is, in fact, A&E that’s taken the reigns of the franchise, starting the story from scratch and beginning a new television series set in the current day, following Norma Bates and her teenage son Norman’s purchase of a motel in a small town off the interstate. The first couple of episodes firmly establish the new series as a “reboot,” as other than the character names and the motel with the house looming over the property ominously from a hill above, it’s essentially a fresh start with nothing but vague nods to the continuity set up by the four films. (Or, for that matter, the splintered continuity of writer Robert Bloch’s subsequent follow-up novels or 1987’s aborted BATES MOTEL pilot.)
Last week on the pilot episode, we met up with the gangly son Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) as they arrived in White Pine Bay, Oregon (several hours north of the cinematic setting of Fairvile, California) after the mysterious death of Norma’s husband. The two purchase a run-down motel, leading to the uncomfortably shocking incident that everyone on the internet was talking about – awkward Norman walking out the door and being randomly hit on by a convertible full of beautiful teenage girls.
Okay, the big series-defining moment in the pilot was the rape of Norma, and her subsequent murder of her rapist after being rescued (a bit belatedly) by Norman, leading to the pair having to get rid of the body, which sets off an investigation in episode two. It’s certainly a shocking, hugely dramatic moment that should certainly serve as a turning point for the characters. So far, however, all it’s been is a plot point – a way to get the Bates clan to start interacting with the community. Neither Norman nor Norma seem particularly psychologically affected by the incident, and while Norma clearly has some skeletons in her closet, shouldn’t a series that takes a look at the early life of such a notoriously fascinating fictional murderer be taking a closer look at the moments that define him?
It’s early in the series, of course, so it’s possible that “Bates Motel” will end up starting to head down that path. In the meantime, the second episode gives us lots and lots of plot. Norma’s son from her first marriage, a sexy bad boy named Dylan played by Max Thieriot, who arrives on the Bates doorstep out of cash and with nowhere else to go, even though he hates his mother and stepbrother.
Oddly, we don’t see Norman’s reaction when he sees Dylan show up – the first time we know that Norman’s aware that he’s staying with them is a scene where he asks his mother when he’s leaving. I know you writers want to get with the plot stuff, but c’mon! Norman’s reaction to his deadbeat brother showing up out of the blue and wanting to stay with them? This isn’t an emotional reaction you have thirty seconds of screen time for?
Anyway, Dylan hangs out at the house uselessly, waiting to be inevitably killed a few episodes down the line.
Meanwhile, Norman is hanging out with Bradley, the beautiful girl who is attracted to Norman presumably so the cool kids can pour pig’s blood over him at the prom, at the bus stop with a bunch of the other random, nameless attractive girls who apparently just hang out and text and say YOLO and do whatever vaguely defined teenagers do. Suddenly, a car drives past them and swerves into a ditch and Bradley identifies it as her dad’s – running to the car, they find her pop burned to a crisp inside the otherwise untouched car. Sheriff Richard from “Lost” shows up with his deputy and the pair get distracted from the spontaneous combustion when they discover the car of the Bates’s murder victim in the woods.
While the Sheriff and his deputy talk to Norma, Dylan goes to the local strip joint. Sadly, he does not audition and instead watches the half-assed ladies do some PG-level dancing, meeting a distraught fellow on the other side of the stage openly weeping over the death of his boss, the recently deep fried driver. The guy flashes a wad of cash and Dylan decides he wants in on whatever underhanded scheming this guy is part of.
(Yes, openly weeping over the death of his boss at a strip club. Seriously, if it doesn’t turn out that this guy is either the secret lover or secret son of Bradley’s father, we’d better at least see this guy openly weeping in every other scene he’s in, say, when he stubs his toe or a call he makes goes to voice mail.)
Dylan ends up going home and has a heated exchange with Norma, and he eludes to the death of her second husband. The next day, Norman and Norma bond by cleaning the kitchen floor obsessively when Emma, Norman’s lady friend with cystic fibrosis who is interested in Norman BECAUSE THAT RELATIONSHIP MAKES SENSE, shows up at the door. Norma immediately latches on to the oxygen tank she drags around and asks her what her life expectancy is.
Yes, really. Norma, a full-down woman played by an Oscar-nominated actress, immediately considers making small talk to a young woman her son is interested in, whom she’s never met before, a call to ask how long she plans to live. At this point I don’t think Norma is psychotic. I think she’s just incredibly socially awkward.
Emma answers honestly (“27”) and doesn’t think anything of it, because she is the nicest character in history and the show had better not do anything to make her terrible. She and Norman hang out in his room and she talks about Charles Manson, but then she discovers the weird book of sexy drawings Norman found in a hotel room and… becomes interested in them and asks if Norman drew them. When Norman nervously sputters, she stops him with “I’ve read a lot of manga, a lot steamier than this.”
Did I mention that Emma is awesome? Emma is awesome.
Back at the home front, the sheriff and sidekick stop by to see Norma after they find an eyewitness who saw her being confronted by the missing fellow. Who? Seriously, if this is relevant, show us what the hell is going on! The two play mind games and the deputy and Norma make goo-goo eyes at each other, giving Norma the idea to get out of a potentially sticky situation by using her feminine wiles. She meets up with the deputy later in town, smiles and gives her best pick up line: “So, what’s your life expectancy, deputy?”
Not really, but it’s still awkward, and the two agree to date but not date at a local woodcarving festival that we’re just learning about now. Norma dresses up in her best nightgown stolen from the set of “Charmed,” but Norman tells her to wear something else, so she changes in front of him, which isn’t weird at all. And, oddly, other than Norman’s reaction, it’s kind of not – Norma’s just so confident in her own odd behavior that it doesn’t seem strange at all. Farmiga’s performance on the show is so solid that it’s essentially the opposite of, say, Jessica Lange on “American Horror Story” – while Lange is so immersed in grandeur that even the simplest of actions is eerie, Farmiga’s Norma is so calm in every occasion that she could start randomly throwing wet noodles out of her pockets and it would seem perfectly natural.
While Norma goes out, Dylan receives a phone call and Norman sees that it’s from “The Whore” (which is great) and is shocked when he realizes that it’s actually their mother. (Honestly, the fact that Dylan has made listed his mother as “The Whore” in his phone is the first compelling trait the character offers.) The two scuffle and Norman almost clobbers his brother with a meat tenderizer, but Dylan knocks him down and gives him a bloody eye.
Meanwhile, the deputy alludes to mysterious goings on in town to Norma, but it’s all vague and talk about how the production of artisan cheese doesn’t produce a real economy – something else does. (He is probably covering for their shitty cheese.) Norma is all creeped out because he’s being ominous, and she’s supposed to be the ominous one.
Norman heads over to Emma’s dad’s taxidermy shop and Emma tells him that she’s translated his book and it talks about a sex slave industry in a nearby forest. As awesome as Emma is, it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that she makes the connection that the drawings are based on actual events just because she sees a local canyon depicted in them. They are, of course, because if there’s one thing this show needs, it’s more plot, but Emma’s making the connection is dubious. But it means that Norman will be hanging out with her instead of boring, pretty Bradley with the flame-ridden father, so that’s fine.
At home, Norma and Dylan have another scuffle, and Dylan threatens to tell the insurance people what life with her second husband was really like, and Norma backs off. While Dylan furthers his inevitable demise, Emma and Norman go to the forest from the book and stumble upon a field of marijuana guarded by a couple of angry guys with guns. They’re chased and get away back to Emma’s VW Beetle (because Emma is AWESOME) and head back, while at the same time, Norma, driving through town, spots a number of people running toward the sign of the charred remains of a human, hung upside down and still flaming, in the middle of town.
So there’s a lot going on around the Bates Motel, but there’s still nothing really going on IN it – they haven’t opened, so it’ll be nice when they can have some characters in town for an episode rather than having to further all of this town drama. And hell, there’s a lot of town drama, and much of it doesn’t make sense at this point. Still, it’s the second episode. Stay calm. They’ll get to some character development, presumably, after they get all this front-loading plot business out of the way.
At least I hope they will.
– Paul Freitag-Fey
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