Based on the early years of future crazy bird Norman Bates, the series is a prequel that gives a background to the characters and provides audiences a glimpse into how and why he became the psycho we know him to be. Set in modern times (iPhones included) and starring a superb cast led by the unflappable Vera Farmiga and young expat Freddie Highmore as the dastardly mother/son duo, Bates Motel is a smart series that plays on all the thrills and scares expected with such a premise. Although there are some great call backs to the original film, the show comes into its own and builds characters and stories essential to an origin narrative.
Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) isn’t exactly what you would call a ‘normal’ teen, he is a little out of left field but seemingly a harmless boy who has an overly attached relationship with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). After his father dies under suspicious circumstances, Norman is uprooted to White Pine Bay, where Norma has purchased their new home/business venture, aptly named the Bates Motel. But like every sleepy idyllic town, this place has a lot of secrets to hide and dangerous towns’ people to boot, including law enforcers Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel). At school, Norman meets two girls that will have a long lasting effect: the popular poor-little-rich-girl Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz) and the sickly, intelligent outcast Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke). To top it all off Normans’ half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) comes rolling through, not only shaking Norman’s foundations but also Norma’s complete disregard for her eldest son is a telling sneak peek into one of her own dark secrets.
It’s hard to play a character that is widely known in cinematic history, but Highmore plays a young Norman Bates with such a duality of wide eyed innocence and chilling intent that’s it’s impossible to differentiate between him and his older movie counterpart Anthony Perkins. It doesn’t hurt matters that the physical resemblance between the two is uncanny, so props to the casting department for keeping continuity in the series. If Highmore is good then Farmiga is great as the overbearing future catalyst Norma. Time and time again throughout the series’ the little nuances and tone Farmiga brings to the character is just sheer perfection to watch. Her effortlessness as a woman just trying to defend herself and her son is an honest, if not misguided attempt at protecting their future. Both these actors are at their best when sharing the screen together, their interactions on the surface seem somewhat normal, but the underlying tension between the two is a slow bubble that can explode at any given moment, and quite frankly scared the shit out of me a couple of times.
Immediately the first episode is everything you want in a pilot. Intrigue, violence, and an incredibly bloody death, that although deserved is still confronting nonetheless. Each character already shows glimpses and traits, if you know where to look, that are telling signs that all is not right and you know exactly where this is leading to. For instance, Norman takes an avid interest in taxidermy (!) and the way his eyes gleam and his satisfied smirk spreads across his face you become all too aware that this is an interest with killer results.
Episode six titled ‘The Truth’ is a stirring mid-season episode, shedding light on some characters secrets while also presenting them with a whole new set of problems as the season steam rolls to an end. As a ten-episode series, Bates Motel could be forgiven for drifting into that slow steady pace then have an explosive finale. Here each episode, some more than others, peel away the many layers of these people to leave wreckage in their wake that they must deal with in the next episode, creating mini cliff-hangers that keep audiences glued to the screen. Every. Single. Time.
A hidden treasure on this show is the locations used, often in series of late there’s no real essence to the backdrop, it’s just there for characters to occupy. The Bates Motel is a character itself, overbearing and foreboding in its presence, highlighting the dangers that are yet to come. The writing too is brilliant, giving each actor a lot to chew and it’s clear that each relish the chance to show off their acting chops.
Bates Motel had an unenvious job ahead of it, to bring to life characters that most audiences already have a preconceived notion about. The fact that it has managed to empathise with these characters is a testament to all involved in the show, and is a great starting block come season two.