March 4, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Bates Motel”


BATES MOTEL:  Monday 9PM on A&E

BATES MOTEL has lit up its Vacancy sign for a second season, and it’s retained its particular blend of soap, black comedy and horror thriller.  The strength of Bates is that even if we didn’t recognize its protagonist’s name, and know what lies in his Hitchcockian future, the prequelled characters are strong enough that they’d still be worth watching.

Season 2 began with a brief prologue establishing that the night after the murder of Miss Watson, the concerned teacher of young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), troubled teen Bradley (Nicola Peltz), for whom Norman has unresolved and mostly unrequited feelings, attempted suicide by jumping off the local bridge.  The bulk of the episode, written by series creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, and directed by Tucker Gates, jumped ahead 4 months, and cannily leaped into a complete change of tone, as we got to watch the Bates family mostly–of all things!–happy.  The motel was full, erratic mom Norma (Vera Farmiga), her hair lightened, was flitting around with a grin on her face, and brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) was prospering enough from his pot trade duties to offer rent to his mother.

It could not, of course, last.  Norman, still unable to remember all the events of that night 4 months earlier, was dividing his time between visits to Miss Watson’s grave and long hours perfecting his taxidermy skills.  He made an ill-advised visit to Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell, now a regular) with his suspicions about another cemetery visitor, which only sharpened the sheriff’s suspicions about Norman himself.  Norma discovered that the freeway bypass that would soon make the Bates Motel obsolete was proceeding much faster than expected.  And Bradley, newly released from the asylum, was determined–deadly determined, as it turned out–to track down the murderer of her father, who she soon discovered had been sleeping with Miss Watson and may have been killed for that reason.

With the success of Season 1, Cuse and Ehrin seemingly feel comfortable enough with their section of the Bates saga that they’ve eased up on the Psycho references and jokey hints, playing the series as a mostly separate entity.  Counting Bradley’s violent actions in the season premiere, just about every regular character on Bates Motel is now a killer, or at least a killer-to-be, since Norman’s involvement in Miss Watson’s demise is still unclear.  (Olivia Cooke’s Emma, the last bastion of relative innocence on the show, was barely seen in this episode.)  That gives the writers enormous leeway for what they can have the characters believably do, and while the energy still sags when the town’s drug trade takes center stage, mostly the show keeps viewers pleasantly uncertain about what could happen next.

Bates continues to be immeasurably helped by the presence of Farmiga and Highmore.  She can streak from a perfectly reasonable and likable woman trying to cope with a variety of realistic challenges to a scary, imposing threat without visible strain, and was particularly good in the premiere as she faced off against the town council, futilely trying to halt or at least delay the construction of the bypass, as her anger did battle with her attempt to stay civil.   (Anger won.)  Highmore, like the show in general, is less concerned now with suggesting Anthony Perkins, and is building a complicated Norman, a far more ambiguous figure than Hannibal‘s louche Lecter, and one that isn’t without its own humor.  A driving lesson with Norman and his mother was as delightful as one would imagine.

There are many ways in which Bates Motel can go wrong before it ends, and the presence of Cuse, who shares both credit and blame for Lost, can only give one pause.  For the moment, though, his sensibility is mixing well with Ehrin’s more down-to-earth drama (her previous work includes Friday Night Lights) and together they’re keeping the tone both stylized and emotionally grounded.  Bates was a substantial hit for A&E last season, with ratings consistently in the 1.2-1.3 vicinity, and it should hold well on its return.

Programming note:  tonight A&E aired a live companion show, BATES MOTEL: AFTER HOURS, modeled after AMC’s successful Talking Dead, after the premiere of the companion series Those Who Kill.  For the moment this was an experiment, and its return is currently unscheduled.  It was hosted by the rather scarily overcaffeinated Carrie Keagan, who made Chris Hardwick seem wanly unenthusiastic, and featured what may have been a record number of social media mentions in a single televised half-hour.  The two conclusions one can quickly draw are that this isn’t Vera Farmiga’s chosen brand of forum, and it’s not going to be the place to go for in-depth probing of the creative strategies behind Bates Motel.


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."