It seems to be quite the year for TV series spin-off prequels to famous movie franchises. A few months ago we had the early years of Hannibal featuring the pre-incarceration Dr Hannibal Lector, everyone’s favourite cannibalistic serial killer; and now it’s the turn of Psycho’s Norman Bates to rise from the cinematic annals with a rebooted origin story.
In this first episode, “First You Dream, Then You Die”, we meet a teenage Norman and his still very-much-alive mother as they purchase a rundown motel in a small town on the west coast of the US. Norman is shy and awkward although handsome enough to attract some attention from the girls at school, something that his mother does not approve of; she meanwhile becomes the target of hatred from a man whose family used to own the motel and who went bankrupt. That leads to violence, and long before the end of the pilot episode the floors of Bates Motel are once more slick with blood.
I was surprised by this first episode by how totally unsurprised I was by any of it. If I’d written down an outline of what I’d have expected to see from an uninspired prequel, then this would have been very close to what I’d have envisaged. As such I was left rather underwhelmed and nonplussed by it, and wondering just how long I’ll be watching if it doesn’t pull something unexpected out of the bag.
That’s a shame, because the two leads are excellent. Vera Farmiga has the freedom to create an entirely new character in Mrs Bates who of course was never seen in the flesh in Psycho. She creates a suitably unhinged personality which is some degrees away from being monstrous but which clearly has the potential to develop in that way in very short order, as her possessive and slightly creepy, over-sexualised yet repressed attitude towards her son makes clear.
Britain’s own Freddie Highmore has the harder job as Norman as he’s stepping into the very famous shoes of Anthony Perkins: he both has to imply Perkins’ own portrayal while not allowing himself to be held hostage by it, and he pitches the performance quite perfectly. At this stage he’s still a relatively normal schoolboy, someone we can all identify with, but there are small hints and flashes which suggest something more, something darker, just waiting under the surface as his psyche is progressively damaged and cracked by mommie dearest.
It’s just that the general writing and scenario around these two great performances is so tepid. There seems little place for the show to go that hasn’t already essentially been implied by Alfred Hitchcock’s original or by the film and TV movie follow-ups. We know how the story ends, and the show isn’t demonstrating much sign of a life or aspirations of its own at this admittedly very early stage of proceedings.
It’s hard not to make comparisons to the aforementioned Hannibal which on the face of it encountered many of the same advantages and disadvantages as Bates Motel going in. That series succeeded by doing some wholly unexpected things and going off in a completely different direction from anything we’d expected. Rather than becoming a ‘serial killer of the week’ show as it could so easily have been, it burrowed down into the psyches of its main players with a relentless single-mindedness to become a truly gripping character study amid the horror.
Hannibal also knew to keep a lot of the stylistic grace notes from the film franchise (The Silence of the Lambs in particular, with everything form on-screen captions to entire sets carefully recreated from the 1991 movie). But while that film was without question an out-and-out horror movie with a full 18 certificate, it holds nothing to the utterly pitch black darkness of the TV series which cranked the whole thing up to ‘depraved’ without ever losing its compulsive edge that meant you couldn’t look away.
Bates Motel on the other hand turns everything down to ‘normal’. The psychology of the two characters couldn’t get any more bargain basement Freudian; the small town that Norman and his mother move into couldn’t be any more ordinary. The iconic Bates Motel and the house overlooking it in the hill are present and correct of course but there’s strangely little interest in even hinting at the eerie feel that the settings possessed in Psycho. In fact the absence of even the slightest sense of anything you could describe as ‘Hitchcockian’ is perhaps the biggest disappointment and loss here.
Yes, there’s a murder, but the camera is curiously reluctant to cover it – worryingly the show is far more up-close and lingers far too long while it is covering every detail of a violent rape attack, which is unpleasant and difficult to watch. While doubtless a pivotal moment for the character involved and the inciting incident for what surely follows on the road to Psycho, it feels like it’s walked in from a different film franchise and has little to do with this one. Afterwards, the film tries to crank up a little suspense by then having mother and son struggle to dispose of a corpse, but there’s none of the invention that Hitch would have brought to it and it’s all just a bit of a slog. When the sheriff and his deputy show up for no good reason the whole thing just feels artificially concocted; moreover, the fact that we know Norman’s future story means that there’s no actual tension involved about whether they will or won’t be found out at this point.
‘A bit of a slog’ pretty much sums up what I felt about the first hour as a whole. I wanted to like it so much more than I did, and the two leads are terrific; it’s just that I’m not convinced the series has any ideas of its own for what it wants to do that weren’t already entirely seeded into the franchise by Hitchcock and Robert Bloch over 50 years ago and which were so much more fertile when left to the imagination to work on rather than see laboriously translated to the screen. There’s still time for the series to mix things up, just as Hannibal took things in a completely different direction from the trajectory we thought we were expecting. Bates Motel has already signalled some variation by setting the events in the modern day (as evidenced by details such as cars and music players) although this being Everytown USA there’s also an idealised mid-50s timelessness to the the place as well.
Part of the problem is that it feels we’ve entered the story too early: neither Norman nor his mother are anything close to being monstrous at this point, so it’s going to rely on a line of other psychos coming to their door to provoke things into action. Hannibal by contrast knew enough to start with Lector’s serial killing not just underway but at its height, and the other characters also well advanced in their development. With Bates Motel we’ve come in right at the beginning, and it’s all-too quick to dawn on us that actually the most interesting part of this story that we want to hear is not only a long way down the road but is one that we’ve already been told – by Hitchcock and Bloch, in 1960.
The one thing Bates Motel has done is given me a new admiration for the work of Bryan Fuller on Hannibal. I might have been taken aback and at times genuinely appalled by some of the things that show did over its first run, but I was never bored by it.
Bates Motel is airing in the UK on the Universal channel on Thursday nights at 9pm. A release date for the Season 1 DVD and Blu-ray has yet to be announced.