Judge Patrick Bromley can check in, but he can never leave.
A boy's best friend is his mother.
A&E's Bates Motel, a prequel series to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, quickly became the highest-rated show in the cable network's lineup when it began airing in March 2013. With its high production values and an Emmy-nominated lead performance by Vera Farmiga, the show has been buzzed about by horror fans and TV junkies alike since its debut. I, of course, failed to see a single episode.
Now, the show's first season is coming out on Blu-ray. Was it worth all the hype? Or will the "prequel" trappings just make me want to take a shower afterwards?
Get it? That's a Psycho reference.
Facts of the Case
Meet the Bates family: mother Norma (Vera Farmiga, Orphan) and her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland), who have moved to the small town of White Pine Bay, Oregon, following the accidental death of Norman's father back in Arizona. Using her insurance settlement, Norma buys a roadside motel so that she and Norman can start a new life for themselves.
Easier said than done. In no time at all, they're wrapped up in murders, criminal plots, lying to the police, hiding bodies and other nefarious goings on. Norma's son/Norman's half brother Dylan (Max Thieriot, My Soul to Take) shows up and complicates the relationship between mother and son. Norman takes an interest in Bradley, the most popular girl at school (Nicola Peltz, The Last Airbender), oblivious to his friend Emma (adorable Olivia Cooke), his partner in amateur sleuthing who's nursing a crush on him. Between discovering pot farms and prostitution rings, hiding bodies and covering up murders, the Bates family has their hands full—especially when a mysterious stranger shows up and literally brings the dead to the steps of the Bates Motel.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed the Blu-ray release of Psycho II and argued that while it maybe had no business existing, it's a thoughtful, clever expansion on the 1960 Hitchcock classic and one of the better sequels of the 1980s. It's proof that diving deeper into the character of Norman Bates isn't impossible. It just requires good hands.
The A&E TV series Bates Motel, which debuted earlier this year and is now out on Blu-ray, might refute all the points I made about Psycho II. It's not that it's a bad show—though perhaps a case could be made—but that it really shouldn't have anything to do with Psycho. Change a few of the character names, the location (it could still be a motel if that's important, which it isn't) and the title and it's a better series, mostly because it's not tied to all the baggage of the Bates Family.
Things start well enough, with Norma and Norman clearly demonstrating the kind of strange, too-close relationship hinted at in the original films and a murder or two that need covering up. But everything stops feeling like Psycho pretty quickly once we're introduced to secret pot farms and secret Asian sex slave rings and Norman's black sheep brother and five or six more elements that just feel out of step with what it seems like the creators (among them Carlton Cuse, previously responsible for Lost) are trying to do in the beginning. It's not that there can't be a compelling show about pot farms and sex slaves—I'm just not sure it's this show. And while I should be applauding Bates Motel for trying to branch out and be its own thing, this isn't what I had in mind.
Because Bates Motel wants to have it both ways. It wants to have contemporary issues and ridiculous crime story lines better suited to Sons of Anarchy than to Norman Bates, but it also wants to tie things in to the original material made famous by Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano. The creative team takes it (mercifully) easy on too many Psycho callbacks—I can only imagine the version of the show with lots of shower foreshadowing, which would make me never stop throwing up in my mouth. Unfortunately, they don't manage to avoid it altogether. Because the series is set up as a prequel, there are the requisite stupid attempts at showing us the origins of aspects of Norman's personality. Bates Motel has the character befriend a stray dog just for the purposes of (SPOILERS) having it hit by a car so that Norman can be so distraught he decides to stuff it. And wouldn't you know that his new friend has a father who does taxidermy? So there you go. Now we know how Norman got his start stuffing animals. Which we didn't need to know, and which doesn't make Bates Motel or Psycho better, richer experiences.
But while the writing isn't always the strongest (it's fine, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that it could be so much better), there are things to like about the show. It's a good looking series, filled with grey skies and a dark, ominous atmosphere. The two central performances by Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga go a long way towards making the show watchable; Highmore's performance is somewhat limited, but so is his character. He doesn't quite do an Anthony Perkins impression, but still does a convincing job inhabiting the creator that Perkins made into a cinematic icon—it's more an approximation than an impression, but it's a good one. Farmiga is basically the whole show, making Norma Bates into a character that's funny, sad, sexy, disturbing, both a victim and a monster. Again, both Farmiga and Bates Motel could have laid it on way too thick and made Norma Bates a controlling monster—the modern-day incarnation of Carrie White's mom—as a way of explaining Norman's later psychosis. Instead, she comes off as a real person, one who is able to function in society while still seeming fundamentally broken and passing that on to her son. The cast is rounded out by a lot of ringers, including Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Romero (can we please get a moratorium on naming characters in horror movies/shows after horror directors?), Mike Vogel as Deputy Shelby and Deadwood's W. Earl Brown in the small but important role of former motel owner Keith Summers. Halfway through the season, Jere Burns (Justified) shows up to play a creepy guy, because that's what you do when you're not sure where else to go. You bring in Jere Burns to play someone creepy.
The first ten episodes have been collected on Blu-ray as Bates Motel: Season One, spread out over two discs. The show, presented in its 1.78:1 widescreen television aspect ratio in full 1080p HD, looks very good in high def. The atmospheric photography is one of the best things about Bates Motel, and the HD transfer does right by it: the dark, muted earth tones hold up well, accented by the occasional neon lights of that blinking motel sign. Skin tones look accurate throughout and fine detail is consistently strong. I didn't watch the show during its broadcast run, so I can't speak to whether or not it looks as good or better than the HD presentation on A&E. I can only say that it looks great. The lossless 5.1 audio track is totally serviceable for the show's needs, offering an experience that's just slightly more cinematic than the usual television series. Dialogue is clear and clean, the music is well balanced and effective and the surround channels are sometimes used effectively, if not quite often enough. Beyond Vera Farmiga's performance, atmosphere is the best thing Bates Motel has going for it and Universal's Blu-ray release does a nice job accentuating that atmosphere.
The bonus section is fairly anemic, however, with only a collection of deleted scenes and footage from a reasonably interesting Paleyfest panel discussion serving as extras. An Ultraviolet digital copy of the show is also included.
During its original airing on A&E, I heard mostly positive things about Bates Motel. I know it's a show with a fan base, and it has a lot of things going for it. It's a well-made show, reasonably compelling from one episode to the next (when you can binge watch on Blu-ray, at least; not sure how motivated I would be to tune in from week to week) and features two strong performances at its center. But it's show that shoots itself in the foot with its specificity while still being too generic a cable drama to really stand out. I don't regret the time I spent watching Bates Motel: Season One, but there's not much about it that will have me tuning in to Season Two.
It's a fine show, but there might be too many good shows on to settle for one
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