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Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Bates Motel, "First You Dream, Then You Die"

Season 1, Episode 1

Grade: A
Summary:  While some may take issue with A&E doing their own spin on an "untouchable" classic film such as Psycho, the fact remains: Bates Motel is good.  Though this episode does not set up everything that leads into the Hitchcock film, there are already seeds for that story in the one being told here.  As far as Pilot episodes go, this one does a good job of setting up how this series will tell its own story, while also giving just enough nods for the fans.  Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore are absolutely perfect in their roles.

Six months after the sudden loss of his father, Norman Bates and his mother Norma have relocated to a recently foreclosed house/motel.  As Norma and Norman begin their new life, some parts of the town are very welcoming, while others seem to have sinister motivations.  Norma and Norman are not the usual Mother-Son pair, though, and they have a few secrets of their own.

Even if you are not a horror fan, Psycho is a classic film that is required viewing for anyone who has an interest in movies.  Hitchcock's most famous work is deserving of the title as it is not only a great film in its own right, but also establishes many story beats that would become indicative of the slasher genre.  Almost as famous as the classic shower scene is Psycho's villain: Norman Bates.  The character, so ably portrayed by Anthony Perkins, is such an intriguing, yet menacing character that I am comfortable in calling him the last of the Universal Classic Monsters.

It would seem that prequels are now running just as rampant as remakes in Hollywood.  Oz The Great and Powerful, The Hobbit, and X-men: First Class are just some of the films that have tried to put new spins on famous characters with varying degrees of success.  Bates Motel follows in a line of prequel television series such as Smallville and the recent CW show The Carrie Diaries.  Like them or not, there is something about the idea of a prequel that intrigues everyone.  While we may know the outcome of these stories in the long run, that does not mean there cannot be a few surprises along the way.  In many ways, prequels can be just as freeing as sequels in terms of narrative possibilities.

With the decision to update Psycho to the 21st Century, Bates Motel allows itself to be a quasi-prequel.  Sure, there are definitely story threads even in this first episode which could easily cause Norman to become the killer we know him to be, but the modernization also allows for this to be a total new version of the story.  We are getting the history of Norman Bates, but not necessarily the history of the one we know from the 1960 film.  This choice to modernize a classic film could have easily come back to bite the creators of Bates Motel.  The environment of the Bates Motel and the house (recreated perfectly for the series) makes the sporadic use of modern technology a bit jarring, but it also adds an interesting level to the story.  Here we have a mother and her son living comfortably in a world far removed from modern society, but they still have enough technological tethers to 2013 to keep themselves connected.

Vera Farmiga is perfect in the role of Norma Bates.  In many ways, Farmiga had less pressure of having to have a certain characterization as Norma is a character we have never actually seen living before (at least not to my knowledge from only the original film).  The way Farmiga plays Norma is a mix of mother to her son, but also girlfriend to her boyfriend.  Both of them are obviously very close, but you can very much so see that Norma needs Norman.  He is a boy she is beginning to fear will drift away from her as he gets older.  He is all that she has in this world, but he could definitely find others to grow close to.  Easily the most intensely emotional scene of this episode features a rape and a murder.  As Norma desperately pleads for her son's help, we get the sense of how much she really needs her son in her life.  I found it important that Norma is the one we see go through with the first murder of the show.  Not only does the murder, a stabbing, bring up images of Psycho, but we get the idea that perhaps this is why Norman would dress up as his mother to kill his future victims.  Norman's reaction to the murder and the disposing of the body show a boy who does not feel equipped to deal with such horrors, but, by assuming the role of his mother, he conceivably could.  Perhaps I'm stretching a bit in this regard, but this is just the way I see it.

Not only is Farmiga perfect as Norma, but Freddie Highmore is just as fantastic as Norman.  This boy has grown quite a bit from playing the title role in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  There are glimmers of that little boy at times in Highmore's face, but his characterization of Norman erases any trace of Charlie.  At times during this episode, Highmore's body language and inflection were so reminiscent of Anthony Perkins I got chills.  Norman clearly has unusual relationships with the women in his life, but, at this point, it seems no one can replace his dear old mom.  While there are times in this episode where Norman seems like your average 17 year old, he also has brief flashes of moments where you really feel this kid could become a serial killer some day.  Particularly the moments where he calls his mom "Mother" instead of "Mom" show a small, but distinct change in his psychology.

There are definitely some story threads that begin to take off in this episode, but this pilot feels mostly like an establishing of the relationship between Norman and Norma Bates.  This is not a bad thing at all as not only do Farmiga and Highmore play their characters perfectly, but their chemistry together is even better.  Only Norman Bates would have a heart to heart with his mother before hiding a body in a lake.  While we do not know what happened in the six months after his father's death, it is clear that Norma and Norman will be inseparable.  This penultimate scene in the finale was written fantastically and does an excellent job of giving us a taste of where this series could go in the future.

Overall, this is a great first episode.  While I felt The Following had a much stronger pilot, Bates Motel gets a lot right in its own regard.  Not only do we have the establishing of the relationship between mother and son, but there are some nice moments that show just how brutal and emotional this series could become in the future.  I'm thinking next week's episode will give us more of an idea of what will drive this season and I am incredibly excited to see what is in store for the Bates family.
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