The early years of Psycho star Norman Bates updated to the present time could have been truly awful in the wrong hands. Although there are many rocky moments, Bates Motel just about manages to make it work thanks to some nifty writing, an atmospheric setting and excellent performances.
Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and her teenage son Norman (Freddie Highmore) have moved to White Pine Bay in Oregon and bought a motel. They’re looking for a fresh start, but trouble quickly finds them in the form of disgruntled locals, shady characters, the local drug trade and a conveyor belt of dead bodies. And what exactly is wrong with Norman?
Declaring a kinship with Twin Peaks is the done thing if your show combines soapy melodrama, dark dealings and lots of murders, so it’s no surprise that Carlton Cuse admits to “ripping it off” in the Paley Center discussion on the extras. In truth, this misty bayside Gothic has much more in common with the original Dark Shadows series, steering dangerously close to high camp.
The only vamping comes from the ever-brilliant Farmiga who delivers a scenery-chewing, tremendously watchable performance of Jessica Lange in American Horror Story proportions. Highmore is also excellent, the right combination of boy-next-door and troubled youth, and he plays off Farmiga beautifully. Their scenes together allow Bates Motel to explore the potential of its concept.
It’s when we leave the motel that things start to get shaky and a kidnapping ring subplot in the season’s first half is desperately clunky. However, it’s quite self-aware and, as the season progresses, it settles into a more consistent groove and supporting characters like Olivia Cooke’s best friend and Nestor Carbonell’s icy Sheriff come into their own.
By the season finale, it’s developed into a very entertaining drama. The biggest problem is that because we all know Psycho, we know where it’s going. If the show can keep exploring Norma and Norman’s complicated, creepy relationship while throwing gruesome surprises at the viewers, it’ll keep getting better.