Throughout the long and convoluted history of “Psycho’s” main character, the big question has been: What made Norman Bates become a knife-wielding, murderous dual personality?
“Bates Motel,” a series premiering at 10 p.m. EDT Monday on A&E, is the latest attempt to answer that question, and to answer it in a way that sets this story apart from the original “Psycho” film, three sequels and related productions. But it also has to deal with the other big “Psycho” issue: What exactly was the relationship between Norman and his mother?
“Bates Motel begins” that chronicle before Norman (Freddie Highmore) and mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) have even gotten to the motel, with the death of Norman’s father — and that incident’s tightening the bond between mother and son. Starting over, they move to the town of White Pine Bay, where Norma buys the motel and the accompanying house, and Norman starts attending a new school.
In some respects, things have gotten better. The “Psycho” saga has repeatedly suggested that Norman is somehow appealing to women, and that’s the case here, as the popular Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz) and the ailing Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke) are both drawn to the new kid. Of course, that disrupts the settled social structure in their school — and gains Norman some attention that he doesn’t want.
At the same time, the motel has a history, and a former owner, who is not pleased that the Bateses have moved in. He’s an old-timer in the tightly connected community — and especially friendly with local lawman Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), who casts a wary eye on Norman and Norma. Indeed, as the show moves along, it may not be that Bates mother and son have brought trouble with them (even after Norman’s half brother shows up), but that White Pine Bay itself carries some old, nasty burdens.
Even so, the series is still driven a great deal by the Norman/ Norma relationship. The show, and Farmiga’s performance, make Norma a sexy and sexual creature, and one who is not afraid to give in to all sorts of impulses. Norman, well played for vulnerability by Highmore, tries to fit in with others, only that means controlling his own urges even as life around him pushes him in grimmer directions.
“Bates Motel” asks some intriguing questions, and its tone is full of suspense and gloom as we anticipate what Norman will become. At the same time, it takes horror in some ugly directions, with a relatively early, very violent scene that will disturb many viewers. At least, it disturbed this one — and enough that I questioned whether continued watching was in order. But that scene added to the unsettled feeling that “Bates Motel” wants viewers to have. Even if we know where this is all leading, it’s not going to be a comfortable journey.
©2013 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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