There have been previous attempts to recapture the magic of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the master of suspense's esteemed 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel: three direct sequels of fading quality, a failed TV pilot from 1987, and 1998's controversial shot-for-shot colour remake by Gus Van Sant. You can now add A&E's psychological drama Bates Motel to that inglorious list, which has the peculiarity of being a prequel to the original story set in its future. It can't be a true prequel if Norman Bates (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory's Freddie Highmore) is seen using an iPhone, so it's perhaps best to see Bates Motel as something new exploiting Psycho's untold back-story and brand cachet.
There isn't much that feels fresh about Bates Motel's serviceable but unexciting pilot, which takes us through a pretty straightforward story. Sheltered teenager Norman Bates accompanies his kooky mother Norma (Source Code's Vera Farmiga) to help run a spooky motel on the outskirts of a small town, and one senses Norman's alienation as a 17-year-old who dresses like he's from the 1950s. You also get a taste of Norman and Norma's infamous "relationship", which has become a go-to example of the modern Oedipal complex. Norma introduces her son to their new home by draping herself over their car's hood, posing as you might expect a teenage girl trying to impress her new boyfriend; and in a later scene Norma's prepares a dinner that feels more romantically lit than is perhaps acceptable between mother and son.
So you have two weird people new in town, already coming into conflict with some townsfolk (like a middle-aged rapist whose family built their motel), although Norman's a surprise hit with the ladies (including his teacher?) Highmore's lollipop head and wavering American accent helps sell Norman's eccentric nature, but it's Farmiga who impresses most as his controlling mother. She isn't a full-blown monster yet, but there are fun hints about her adulation of Norman crossing acceptable boundaries. It's no surprise that by the end of the first hour, the Bates have blood on their hands and Norma's forcing her son to help cover up a murder.
But where does a show like Bates Motel go over a potential five years or more? Having Norma and Norman kill their clientèle most weeks could become comical at best, or completely ridiculous if Nestor Carbonell's sheriff keeps failing to realise what's happening. There are hints of something creepier going on in town, regarding a notebook Norman finds with pencil illustrations of a young girl being drugged and abused, so perhaps the whole community will become a playground for creeps and crazies the Bates duo can kill with viewer backing. After all, it may get progressively tougher to keep audiences invested in the lead characters if they're going to murder innocent people all the time. The show perhaps needs a Dexter-like rationale to keep viewers on their side, with Norma's death being the event that'll tip Norman into becoming a psychotic madman famous for slaughtering Janet Leigh in a shower.
Bates Motel certainly wasn't terrible and benefits from having the excellent Farmiga and Highmore in key roles, but you have to question why anyone wanted to exploit Psycho in this way... creating a show that's lacking in the movie's core feeling of suspense. If you're going to do a TV prequel of Psycho, why not commit to a period setting for added interest? Was it too expensive for A&E to finance? Perhaps. But if developers Kerry Ehrin, Anthony Cipriano and Carlton Cuse simply preferred what the modern world has to offer their characters and story, why didn't they create a show that has obvious Psycho influences but stands apart and isn't laden with Hitchcockian baggage?
written by Kerry Ehrin & Anthony Cipriano (story by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin & Anthony Cipriano) / directed by Tucker Gates / 18 March 2013 / A&E