March 19, 2013



BATES MOTEL:  Monday 10PM on A&E

The idea of a pilot is to provide a template for the series that’s to come, but while the first hour of BATES MOTEL is accomplished and well-acted, it’s difficult to tell what kind of show it plans to be.  The premise is straightforward enough:  a prequel (although set in the present day) to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho, concerning the relationship between Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), before she became a taxidermy exhibit in the basement and he became a psychotic cross-dressing murderer.  (Um, spoiler alert?)

But what, in practice, does that mean?  The pilot, written by series co-creators Kerry Ehrin and Anthony Cipriano and based on a story by the two of them and fellow co-creator Carlton Cuse (Ehrin and Cuse are the series showrunners, however, so Cipriano may have been involved at an earlier stage), and directed by Tucker Gates, begins with the (unexplained) death of Norman’s father, and then has mother and son move to West Pine Bay, California, where she’s purchased what will become the Bates Motel.  Norman, despite his somewhat nervous disposition, is instantly something of a ladies’ magnet, with pretty fellow students Bradley (Nicola Peltz), Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Lisa (Brittney Wilson) showing him interest, while young guidance counselor Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) gives him special attention.  All of this makes Norma visibly uncomfortable, as does anything that could pull her son away from her, but while violence breaks out in the pilot, it does so for brutal but much more run-of-the-mill reasons (and not particularly convincing ones–that storyline is like the two hours of Straw Dogs squeezed into ten minutes).

And therein lies the oddity of the show.  We know Norman isn’t going to become a psychopath during these years when his mother is still alive, and if the show follows its pilot’s path and introduces a random murder in every episode just for the sake of bloody violence, things will quickly get ludicrous.  On the other hand, if the show doesn’t live in the horror genre, and turns out to be a drama about a troubled mother-son relationship and a small-town soap, is it really related to Psycho in more than name?

We’ll find out over the next 10 weeks.  So far, at least, Bates Motel is compelling, whatever else it may be.  The pilot walks a clever line in alluding to Psycho motifs (Norman has to clean up after a bloody killing, he exclaims “Mother!” in a familiar way at one point, a pivotal scene features a shower) without fetishizing them.  (There are, thankfully, no Bernard Herrmann-esque shrieking strings, although we get some Hitchcockian high-angle shots.)  Similarly, Highmore does an excellent job in avoiding an Anthony Perkins imitation while suggesting his influence on the performance.  As for Farmiga, it may be a surprise to see such a respected actress in a genre TV series (although she’s shown fondness for horror before, playing troubled moms in Orphan and Joshua, with The Conjuring coming this summer), but she never condescends to the part, wholly committed to Norma’s strained emotions as they swing from menacing sulks to dark humor to heroic determination within a single scene.  Whatever else may become of Bates Motel, Farmiga and Highmore should make it worth watching.

The horror genre has suddenly become a crowded one on television, with American Horror Story, The Following and soon Hannibal joining The Walking Dead, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and their ilk.  Bates Motel appears to have the potential to be a more character-based kind of thriller than these have been–if a thriller is what it intends to be.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."