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Bates Motel: TV Review

Bates Motel Screen Grab - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Hitchcock devotees might think they know how it all ends, but this series takes the infamous Bates family in intriguing new directions.

Airdate

10 p.m. Monday, March 18 (A&E)

Cast 

Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore

A&E’s sort-of prequel to "Psycho" from "Lost’s" Carlton Cuse is refreshingly creepy.

There’s one thing Bates Motel creators Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) want to emphasize about their new A&E series: No, it’s not an homage to Psycho.

Yes, it’s about Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland) and his mother, Norma (Up in the Air Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga), and there’s a hotel and an exact replica of the famous house, but this is what the creators are calling a “contemporary prequel” to the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie -- one that frees them up to tell new stories.

This is important to know -- not an homage, got that? -- because viewers shouldn’t get hung up about knowing how it all will end, nor should they rely on what they know from the movie to inform how they look at these characters. Part of that is because we might never see how it all ends, anyway. And part of that is because the premise itself holds extraordinary storytelling possibilities.

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Bates Motel feels new and not derivative, coming across more Twin Peaks eeriness than full-on Psycho. Cuse and Ehrin -- whose résumés should give viewers hope for creative riches -- must have felt free to make up whatever they wanted.

Mother and son have arrived in the fictional Northern California town of White Pines Bay after leaving Arizona, and a mysterious accident that befell Norman’s father, behind. Guess what? Mom’s bought a motel and the house that goes along with it.

What benefits Bates Motel is that neither Norma nor Norman is obviously evil in any way. This isn’t American Horror Story, where you’re going to get creeped out at every turn, on purpose, until all you expect is something harrowing. This is far more subtle and doesn’t need to make mother and son into a freak show. And although 17-year-old Norman has been taken in by a flock of hot girls at his new high school, he ends up meeting Emma (Olivia Cooke), a girl with cystic fibrosis who seems to find in him a kindred spirit. She’s intrigued by a manga book Norman found in one of the hotel rooms that seems to indicate the creator was sexually abused and possibly killed.

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Cuse and Ehrin clearly intend to put down enough plot points to take away the notion that Norman is just going to flip into psychosis at any moment. Adding to the mystery is the fact that we find out Norman has an older half-brother named Dylan (Max Thieriot), a troublemaker who is scorned by Norma but weasels his way back into their lives. As Norma works to get Dylan to move on, he instead finds a new job -- helping guard an immense pot farm in the mountains.

See, White Pine Bay isn’t as idyllic as it sounds. (The series, shot in Vancouver, has that dark and dreary Pacific Northwest look, though it’s not as relentlessly bleak and wet as The Killing.)

Now, do all these potential storylines mean Norma and Norman won’t, you know, grow close? Not at all. Norma clearly is smothering the boy. Moving into the house on the first night, he looks up to see her through the window in her bra and underwear. Later, she’ll change her top in front of him, and when he blanches, she says: “Oh, Norman, I’m your mother. It’s not like it’s weird or anything.”

Right.

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Across the first three episodes, Highmore does a terrific job of seeming at once introverted, harmless and troubled. At first he just comes off as slightly geeky and then begins to show signs of undiscovered issues he’s trying to tamp down. It’s a nicely nuanced portrayal, as is the conceit that Norman might not quite remember when he’s being bad. But what’s really striking is how superb Farmiga is -- being mother, sex object, fierce protector and, best of all, totally unpredictable. 

Expect a slow(ish) rollout for Bates Motel, as the first couple of episodes establish character and location, before things take an uptick during episode three. But there’s more than enough intrigue and entertainment -- on top of Farmiga’s outstanding turn -- to keep viewers wanting more of this new-style nonhomage to Psycho.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com