Warning: spoilers for season 1, which hasn't aired in the UK (at time of writing).
I reviewed the pilot of A&E's Bates Motel, which had promise but didn't 'wow' me, then recorded an audioboo after episode 4 to admit things were improving. Now the entire first season of 10 episodes has aired in the US, so I thought I'd pitch in with some cumulative thoughts. Firstly, the show does itself no favours with its association to Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho, and I still don't quite understand why A&E couldn't have ordered an original serial killer/mystery drama that doesn't sit in this shadow. Still, considering its iconic pedigree, I don't think Bates Motel is a bad show or a lazy cash-in; occasionally it's even pretty good, at least as something unchallenging but fun to watch.
The thing that sticks out to me about season 1 is how it was bisected, which I assume was intentional so it could end after six episodes if A&E had to pull the plug. Or maybe executive-producer Carlton Cuse's years working on Lost means he's done with wheel-spinning, and wants to work on a show that has a fast and furious pace, and doesn't keep a hundred balls in the air at once.
So for half the season we had the mystery of a Chinese girl the Deputy Sheriff had kidnapped and was abusing in his basement; and then a second mystery about a creep called 'Abernathy' (Jere Burns) who arrived at the motel, generally acted very strange, then made the bizarre move of dumping a corpse in Norma's (Vera Farmiga) bed after she had the audacity to kick him out. For me, the first half worked a lot better, because the situation with Abernathy was too clouded and didn't resolve in a satisfying way—although it did confirm the local Sheriff (Nestor Carbonnell) isn't beyond taking the law into his own hands to protect "his town".
While the storytelling was quite ropey, a lot of this season was rescued by the cast. Freddie Highmore is very good as the new Anthony Perkins, and is both sympathetic and extremely odd at times. The fact Norman is often coerced into killing by a vision of his domineering mother, before suffering from a 'fugue state' immediately afterwards, has worked quite well. The poor boy's mental health issues are what stops you from finding Norman too distasteful.
In fact, much of the time you watch Bates Motel and consider his mother Norma to be the real crackpot. Vera Farmiga's performance is the best thing about this series, because she walks a difficult fine line between being a committed, passionate, sexy, protective, loving mother... and a selfish, controlling, argumentative, deceitful, volatile, manipulative, crazy person. I find Norma both very compelling and extremely irritating, which is perfect.
The second tier cast is also pretty good; but a special mention should go to Max Thieriot as Dylan (Norma's other son), who almost wandered into events as an unexpected ingredient, and has gone on to become one of its better characters. He's one of the few sane people on the show, and it's fun to see him struggle to find his place in the Bates family: almost becoming a father-figure to Norman (trying to steer him towards normality), but never being fully accepted by Norma (perhaps because her mind games don't work on him). I've also enjoyed Olivia Cooke as Emma, the young girl with cystic fibrosis who takes a shine to Norman, whose affection isn't reciprocated, because Norman's loves high school hottie Bradley (Nicola Peltz). One of the weirder things about Norman is how he's such a hit with the ladies (which is ironic considering he'll become a lady killer in the other sense of the word). Once girls realise his hobbies have recently come to include taxidermy, the feminine attention should drop off... right?
Overall, Bates Motel has a long way to go before I'd consider it to be very good television, but it's a decent time-waster that's managed to pull off some exciting and shocking moments in a short space of time. Knowing how difficult it must have been to turn a property like Psycho into a 'contemporary prequel' (by widening the scope to include a town full of oddballs, in a community financed by growing weed), it's done a good job on most fronts.
I'll be booking a room for season 2, which has already been commissioned.