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'Bates Motel' Re-Opens for Business

A&E takes a stab at psychoanalyzing Mrs. Bates' baby boy
Richard Whittaker, 5:45pm, Mon. Mar. 18, 2013
Image courtesy of A&E
"I'll carry you, mother." Norman Bates (Freddie Hghmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) re-open the 'Bates Motel'

Norman Bates was a good kid. Just look at the old publicity shots of Anthony Perkins in Psycho: Meek, mild, horrified by some unseen terror just out of frame. So do we really need to know how he became so broken?

A&E's reboot of the Bates saga, Bates Motel starts tonight with a little slice of established family history: The teen Norman (Freddie Highmore) finding his father dead, and this is set up as the key event that leads him down the path to taxidermy and shower scrubbing. As one of two TV shows airing this season based on slasher franchises (NBC's Hannibal will bring up the rear on April 4), the big conundrum is whether anyone really cares. Psycho has been a dead franchise since 1990's Psycho IV : The Beginning. After that, all that was left was homage, like Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-for-shot remake, or deconstruction, such as Douglas Gordon's 1993 art installation24 Hour Psycho. What the show attempts to do, with some undoubted success, is take it back to what Alfred Hitchcock created: A somewhat schlocky and scandalous potboiler.

Bates Motel is an attempt to add narrative coherence to the muddied and muddles Bates back story, created across Hitchcock's original and three sequels. It has nothing to do with the abortive 1987 Perkinsless series Bates Motel, starring Bud Cort as another motel owner with stability issues (and we don't mean he needs to re-level the pier and beam.) Instead, it picks up with the teen Norman and his mother (Vera Farmiga) packing up everything they own after his father's death and buying a foreclosed motel in a small Californian town.

The key casting is Highmore, who does a better than passing imitation of a young Perkins. Gangly, slightly overly-wedded to his mother, years from being the impulsive critically broken killer of the movie franchise. His shocked delivery of the key line ("Mother!"). He's also contending with the big addition: A second Bates boy Dylan Massett, Norma's son from a previous marriage (Max Thieriot). He's unseen in the first episode, but a brief phone call to Norma implies heavily he'll be a toxic presence in later episodes.

It's a little tougher to buy the luminescent Farmiga as the domineering and oppressive mother of the original Psycho. She seems like far too much of a free spirit, not the shrieking harridan who breaks her young boys' soul and psyche. The initial sign of that kind of oppression is when she blanches about Norman joining the track team. Then the other shoe drops in the shape of a vile local thug, whose family had kept the house in aspic.

The intro gives little to no clue that this is a contemporary update to Robert Bloch's torrid little shocker. The first sign is when Norman is picked up a modern BMW convertible full of high school girls. Show runner Carlton Cuse tries for a strange split: The world around the former Seafairer Motel is standard CW teen fare, but the infamous future crime scene itself is untouched since the 1950s. It's a strange attempt to have and keep the same slice of cake, and in the first episode that retro elements are more successfully stylish and stylized.

It's also surprisingly gory. The Walking Dead may have raise the bar for how much graphic bloodshed is permissible on basic cable, but this is almost Law And Order-esque in how graphic it gets. However, it's only in the closing moments that Cuse really tips his hand: There's an undoubted American Horror Story vibe to the closing reveal. It seems this Norman Bates will be playing detective more than he's spending time in the psychologist's chair.

Bates Motel premieres March 18 on A&E at 9pm Central.

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