‘Bates Motel’ Season 1 TV Review: Enjoyable Mix Of Horror & Camp
Bates Motel threatened to be little more than a campy prequel to Psycho, one of Alfred Hitchcock's most widely seen and spoken about horror films. Yet somehow the A&E series, bulwarked by the acting chops of Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore and a list of supporting actors, makes the becoming-a-serial-killer narrative work both independently and in sync with the big screen narrative of Norman and Norma Bates and their eerie motel.
While those familiar with Psycho knew they were tuning in to see the birthing of a mad man, Norman's particular peculiar brand of insanity is gradually introduced. He's awkward, sure, but he's also unfailingly endearing. On his first day of school he's befriended by a clique of popular girls and ultimately gets invited to a party. He's also the object of affection of a fellow language arts buff, Emma (Olivia Cook), who suffers from cystic fibrosis. Older women, his mother Norma foremost among them, also appear to be taken by the sentient Norman Bates
Not enough could be said about Vera Farmiga's performance as Norma Bates. Everything she brings to the character seems authentic – her moments of saccharine cooing, her seduction of male friends and foes (Farmiga has chemistry with everyone), the bursts of rage and the campier moments that fulfill Hitchcock’s vision for a pitch-black comedy. All at once, she’s normal, chilling, outright terrifying and disconcertingly amusing.
Highmore admirably manages to not disappear in his many scenes with the force that is Farmiga. In fact, the scenes between the two actors playing the too-close mother and son are duly some of the most powerful – whether they be laughable or extraordinarily discomforting. As Norman's brother Dylan, Max Theriot also shines, winning the viewer over to his troubled character through a palpable vulnerability and a strong sense of leadership.
The origin story of the motel murderer was served up in the Bates Motel’s first season with a lot of subtle plot arcs that interwove to show a complicated young man operating within the structure of a poisonous mother/son dynamic. It’s never forgotten that Norman, though destined for death blows, is just 17 in the series, which means he still has average teenage problems – in addition to being a sociopath. Throughout the series’ first ten episodes, viewers are rewarded with resolutions to smaller questions, while more questions continue to be raised. That storytelling pattern is never more clear as it is in the final moments of episode 10; a death is confirmed, but questions about an affair arise.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Bates Motel’s freshman season was the prolonged arc concerning an Asian sex slave ring that began in the third episode. It was the unrivaled low point of a season of otherwise solid stories and their telling. The arc developed from a "manga," or rather an artful journal, Norman discovers in one of the Bates Motel rooms. Norman just sees the images in the journal as porn, but when his friend Emma comes across his stash, she’s convinced that the pictures tell a true story. Ultimately, they find the girl depicted in the story (twice), lose her (twice), but see justice dealt to the one who held her captive. One of the biggest issues for Norman is determining and defining sexual relationships and love in general – but the sex slave ring ended up just feeling like a cheap way to reinforce the theme of sexual deviance.
Bates Motel, if it can take what worked best about its first season and go even deeper, will deliver an impressive sophomore offering. Against the odds, the creators managed to strike the elusive note needed for a comedy of horrors. What’s next for Norma and Norman will surely make their earlier transgressions seem trivial, which means the episodes to come are destined to provide even more uncomfortable intrigue.
Season 2 of Bates Motel is set to premiere on A&E sometime in 2014
Bates Motel Bonus Features:
The DVD/Blu-Ray pack, which includes a digital copy of the season, features a number of deleted scenes. Unfortunately, most of the “scenes” are little more than superfluous extensions of what was scene in the final cut episodes – walking away, frames of a prolonged facial expression, etc. Two scenes that stood out, however, were the revelation of where Dylan called from in the first episode and Norma scolding Norman about acting normal in the wake of criminal activity.
It also features a 45-minute Q&A with Bates Motel co-creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin and actors Farmiga, Highmore, Theriot, Nestor Carbonell and Nicola Peltz. They discuss the show’s similarities to Twin Peaks and The X-Files, and more interestingly, dissect the mother/son dynamic, the show’s present day setting and the agency of the characters.
Manga collectors’ cards of the drawings from Jiao’s sketchbook also come inside the DVD/Blu-Ray pack case.
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