DVD REVIEW: Bates Motel, Season 1

Who would have thought it?  A TV show based on a stone cold nailed on 5 star classic ‘untouchable’ movie turns out not only to not be terrible, it actually manages to be rather good.

Bates Motel is a “contemporary prequel” to the 1960 film Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho and tells the story of the life of Norman Bates and his mother Norma prior to the events portrayed in the classic movie.  Picking up after the death of Norma’s husband (Norman’s biological dad), when she purchases a motel located in a coastal Oregon town so she and Norman can start a new life.  And yes… the house does look just a little bit familiar. 

Series creator and Lost writer Carlton Cuse set his stall out early with this one, citing Twin Peaks as more than a passing inspiration for Bates Motes. “We pretty much ripped off Twin Peaks… If you wanted to get that confession, the answer is yes. I loved that show.” Said Cuse at an early press junket for the first season “They only did 30 episodes. Kerry [Ehrin] and I thought we’d do the 70 that are missing”

The role of now 17-year-old Norman Bates falls to Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and he acquits himself well.  Charming and likeable for the most part, Highmore still manages to tinge every moment with a sense of the darkness that lies behind those eyes.   But it’s fair to say it’s Vera Farmiga that steals the show.  Mrs Bates, as presented here, is every bit the decimated mother, a mother who will go to any lengths to look after the love of her life – the precious Norman.  In a year of great female roles in TV shows, this is up there with the best.

The contemporary setting works for the story, if you can forgive the obvious timeline issues with the original movies.  To be fair it would be restrictive to set this back in the 30’s or 40’s and this more contemporary world works well, probably bothering only those film students and movie fuddy duddies that have had Psycho on repeat viewing since the 60’s.  Updating the setting allows for social, economic and sexual politics that just didn’t exist back in the 60’s and that, in turn, enables much wider story opportunities.

So what about the episodes?  Well the first 6 episodes sets up some nice ideas and moves at a breakneck pace and then, in episode 7,  hits the reset button and almost starts again. It’s an odd move for a show in it’s freshman year but its refocusing allows a strong end to the season and the last few episodes are amongst the shows strongest.  It also allows for the story of Norman and Norma to find its footing again and develop a longer view.  It’s almost like, initially, the shows creators were not sure the series would get past the first ten episodes so set it up to be wrapped up nicely across a year.  To be fair they had good cause.  This show should never have worked.  But as the show develops, so did the audience and with that the show runners knew that they could slow down, reset and prepare to be around for a while yet.

The show isn’t perfect: It’s true that the series is at its best when it focuses on the Bates family, rather than its frequent bearing off into Twin Peaks style events and characters.  That’s not to say that this doesn’t work.  It does.  But the story of the boy and his mother who loves him just that little bit too much is far stronger and more compelling than ideas from a TV show some 25 years ago.  Also it can be a bit soapy and when the story isn’t on the Bates family relationships, it feels very familiar. But these are small points in what is overall a very good first year.

So the ultimate question: Is Bates Motel worth your time? Yes. Alongside similar Movie to TV shows like Hannibal, this was one of the surprises of the 2013 TV schedule. Charming and chilling in equal measure (much like Norman I guess) this is a show that, despite all the obvious predictions of doom and gloom, broke through with great performances, strong characters and confident show running.  Only time will tell if this story has legs to run past another season but for now Bates Motel is a pleasant surprise, and one that deserves your time.

Fact fans: A&E’s “Bates Motel” is not the first attempt at making a TV show based in the universe of Psycho.  Nope that honour fell to a 1987 pilot starring Bud Cort, Lori Petty, and Jason Bateman that failed to be picked up by a network and wound up airing as a TV movie on NBC.

Episode Listing:

1. “First You Dream, Then You Die”
2. “Nice Town You Picked, Norma…”
3. “What’s Wrong with Norman”
4. “Trust Me”
5. “Ocean View”
6. “The Truth”
7. “The Man in Number 9”
8. “A Boy and His Dog”
9. “Underwater”
10. “Midnight” on’s house

Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Phil Hobden

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