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TV Waffle - Bates Motel (Season One)

Norman Bates' origin story gets a contemporary reboot.


'Bates Motel' is a new series on the US A&E cable channel. The first season premiered on March 18th, 2013 and ran for ten hour-length episodes. The series stars Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as her son, Norman Bates.
'Bates Motel' opens with the death of Norman's father who has died in his garage/workshop where a shelf full of equipment apparently fell over on him. Norman discovers the body after waking up and quickly summons his mother from the bathroom where she had been showering. Norma seems surprisingly unconcerned by Norman's announcement of his father's death. After this quick bit of exposition, the show's setting moves to White Pines Bay, Oregon where Norma has used the insurance money from her husband's death to buy a foreclosed motel called The Seaside, along with its adjoining house. While the set is a perfect match for the original from the movie 'Psycho', including the iconic house, the series is set in the present, making it more of a re-imagining than an actual prequel. Given the mystery-within-mystery nature of this series, it would be impossible for me to write this review without giving away some spoilers so continue reading at your own risk.
The show wastes no time in raising the tension level of the story. Within the first episode the Bates are confronted by Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), the former owner who, clearly upset over the loss of his family property, takes things a little too far. We also learn fairly quickly that White Pines Bay is not your typical small town, in that it has more than its fair share of strange goings on. The flavor is reminiscent of 'Twin Peaks' but without the supernatural elements. This is not surprising as producer/writer Carlton Cuse has admitted that the former series is one of his main sources of inspiration for 'Bates Motel'. Some viewers may be put off by this but I was not as I felt the show strong enough to stand on its own regardless. This was also used to good effect as a bit of a distraction for a major plot twist that occurs about halfway through the season. Being focused on these subplots, I was completely blindsided by the revelation which, in retrospect, had enough hints given that I should have been able to put the pieces together myself. The revelation was one of those that made me immediately want to re-watch the pilot episode again and, had it not been late on a weekday, I probably would have. Invoking this sort of reaction is a sign of very good writing to me.
 While this revelation also acts as a resolution for one set of problems for Norma, she is immediately thrown back into the breach when a mysterious tenant named Jake Abernathy shows up with an odd rental request for the motel. In the end, this and the early plots tie very nicely together and we finally learn some interesting things about the local sheriff who is a bit of a cipher himself.
One completely new addition to the background material is the introduction of a half-brother for Norman named Dylan. Dylan (Max Thieriot) is an excellent, although not necessarily healthy, influence on Norman in that he provides a wedge between the unnaturally close relationship between Norman and his mother. Dylan's normalcy also provides a striking counter example to highlight just how off Norma and Norman's relationship is. Dylan also pushes Norman into approaching one of the popular girls at his new school named Bradley who, in one of the show's more subtle pieces of writing, turns out to be a surrogate to Norman for his own mother.
The character of Bradley (Nicola Peltz) is actually one of the few things I dislike about the series, although this is probably me being particularly unsympathetic to the character's personality rather than the actress' actual performance. The only other complaint I had was with the final scene of the first season. Ultimately, I was not surprised by it but I think it would have been far more effective to hold off the revelation until the beginning of the upcoming season for which the series has been renewed. It was just a bit too predictable for my liking and not showing it would have left me guessing, which I personally would have preferred.
While 'Bates Motel' is a re-imagining, they did keep some elements from the movie. One of these, the bypass that Norman gives as the excuse for his motel's lack of tenants in the film, is introduced as a serious plot point in the new show. Also, Norman starts learning the art of taxidermy from the father of one of his classmates. These were both nice little nods to the series' source material that I very much enjoyed.
Overall, I think the restart is a good idea as it really left me wondering where exactly the story line was heading, which is absolutely vital for maintaining the suspense the show requires. If you are a fan of the Alfred Hitchcock classic 'Psycho', as I am, this series is definitely worth checking out.



Nick Sauer
For more from Nick, visit his site 'Fantastic Television'

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