"We all go a little mad sometimes."
Included as one of our ten reasons to watch television in March, the highly anticipated Bates Motel finally premiered last night on A&E. Despite being a 'prequel' to Alfred Hitchcock's classic slasher flick Psycho, the new take from Carlton Cuse, the co-creator of Lost, and Kerry Ehrin, of Friday Night Lights, takes place in modern times and features a young Norman Bates, not to mention his very much alive Mother named Norma. It's not weird, as she says, boys take their father's names all the time. Speaking of fathers, well, the Bates patriarch never really figured into the original story and don't expect that to change (too much) with the television adaptation, something made immediately clear in the great opening moments of "First You Dream, Then You Die." Nope, Bates Motel focuses on the boy and his mother's lovingly twisted relationship during the former's formidable years.
The extended opening sequence, previously released online (and still available as a taste for those who aren't sure whether or not the show's for them) does a fantastic job of introducing not only the main characters, Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as Norman but also setting the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the first episode. And those factors, the co-lead's acting and the brooding atmosphere, are really the two main reasons to tune in at this point. After the economical first few minutes, the episode does meander into many pilot problems, namely a heavy dose of exposition but is able to keep audiences invested thanks to the performances, great locations and pervading sense of doom. "First You Dream, Then You Die" is actually the first major pilot in some time that seems to suffer from 'pilot problems,' excuses made for a series debut because they obviously have to spend time introducing the characters and building the world.
However, these expository issues are not only rarer these days with top talent brought in to write and direct first installments but also typically not associated with first episodes produced with a full season order already in hand like Bates. With A&E ordering ten installments right off the bat, it certainly should have allowed the writers time to string out the force feeding of information and character introductions (especially since it's loosely based on a previously existing property, pun intended) instead of shoving in sequences to ensure that all of the bases are covered. For example, "First You Dream, Then You Die" probably could have gone without the meet-cute between Norman and Jenna after he's puking at school. Not that it was terribly out of place or even poorly handled (like some of the other intros, more on that later) but we've already met more than enough characters for one day, why not focus on really hammering home the central relationship of the series and spend most of the time with Norman and Norma?
Bates Motel hinges on the pairing of mother and son, thankfully Farmiga and Highmore are phenomenal in the roles. Like I said, the cold open before the title card, uh, turns on, does a great job introducing the main characters, immediately showing the trauma of losing Mr. Bates as well as hinting that all is not right with Norma. Farmiga is able to move from coy to clearly concerned for her son (not her dead husband) in an instant and these melodramatic mood swings become typical for the two throughout the episode. And while we're on the enjoyable cold open, I especially loved the thematically perfect hat-tip to Hitch's era with His Girl Friday playing in the background and we hear Ralph Bellamy's Bruce Baldwin utter a phrase about how great it is living with mother. It immediately highlights that Bates isn't a prequel in terms of time, just the characters relocated to the contemporary Pacific Northwest. Yet still facing a lot of the same issues, like the building of the highway which puts the motel off the main road in and out of town.
And these weird anachronistic head-scratchers make me wonder why they didn't just set the prequel in the 40s or 50s (perhaps an effort to avoid being another in the deluge of period pieces) since it would have also helped offset the more heavy-handed or melodramatic moments by making it seem of Psycho's time. There is definitely a tonal clash when it comes to the family events at the motel, played with a classical Hollywood sense of heightened reality, and Norman's adventures with the kids his own age. That's probably the point but it still doesn't change the fact that it doesn't really work in "First You Dream, Then You Die." I want to relish in the over-the-top relationship and murderous thrills that occur at the motel without then being forced into this completely different reality where teenage girls are not only beautiful but friendly. I mean, what a first day of school? Can you imagine that happening to the new kid at the bus stop? No, cause there's no way and when the crazy-beautiful Bradley Kenner sat in his lap (with a full name introduction, like everybody in town) I wanted to stab myself forty times.
Ultimately, you can see why A&E thought to mix Cuse and Ehrin, the former bringing the Lost-style chills and mysteries to the previously established world while the latter has to craft some semblance of a believable teenage life in the same space. And I don't think they succeeded. Yet. I didn't really care for any of the scenes without Norma or not set at the rich and wonderful location but hopefully, once the shit continues to hit the fan, the worlds will collide a bit more and make the one side easier to swallow. Who would have thought I found the story with the rape more palatable than the thread with the pretty teenage girls? By the way, that rape scene was pretty intense and seems to be a pretty common plot device in film and television these days. I'm not sure how I feel about that, I found it gratuitous in The Americans but it does fit into the twisted origin story of the mother and son murderers (assuming he follows his pre-ordained path). I'm also not sure what to make of the incestuous tones at this point and whether they will bubble to the surface. I think I'll check in next week to find out, even if only out of morbid curiosity.
Bates Motel returns with Episode 2, "Nice Town You Picked, Norma...," next Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET on A&E. Created by Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse, the series stars Freddy Highmore, Vera Farmiga, Max Thieriot, Nicola Peltz, Olivia Cooke, Mike Vogel and Nestor Carbonell.