Whether you’re a cinephile or just plain human, Hitchcock’s Psycho is common knowledge. But just what was Norman Bates’ life like as an awkward teen when Mother was still alive and not a mummified corpse in the fruit cellar? Bates-philes might know that there already was a 1990 TV movie, Psycho IV: The Beginning, which flashed back to Anthony Perkins’ Norman (played by E.T.‘s Henry Thomas) and his mother, Norma (Olivia Hussey), in the 1940s and ’50s. However, the TV series Bates Motel (airing on A&E) exceeds that telefilm in just the first episode, “First You Dream, Then You Die.”
Apparently the mindset in Hollywood goes like this: if you’re out of original ideas, take an existing property and give it the prequel treatment. The show’s creator, Anthony Cipriano, has conceived an interesting spin on the “psycho” mother and son: it’s a “contemporary prequel,” meaning it takes place before the 1960 events with Marion Crane taking her last shower but exists in the present day. Yes, even Norman has an iPhone. Don’t overthink the continuity of the timeline because it won’t make much sense beyond anachronistic reinvention.
In the first few minutes, Norman (played by the suitably lanky Freddie Highmore) finds the body of his father in the garage of his Arizona family home. Cause of death is implied that it was the Mrs. because this prompts Norman and his mother, Norma (juicily played by a fierce, shaded Vera Farmiga), to start over in the sleepy coastal town of White Pine Bay. There, they buy the iconic farmhouse on the top of the hill and the “Seafairer Motel” that comes with it and will become the eonymous Bates Motel. Murder and mental breakdowns might just ensue.
Supporting characters are introduced, including a pretty popular girl who meets Norman at the bus stop, recognizing that he’s “weird” and “different”; a local man (W. Earl Brown) who grew up there and demands Norma and her son to leave (but not on Mommie Dearest’s watch); and a stern sheriff (Nestor Carbonell, an eerie dead ringer for the late Anthony Perkins) and his friendlier deputy (Mike Vogel) who scope out the Bates’ new land when mom and son are doing some “late-night cleaning.” Also, who knew Norman had a brother (Max Thieriot)?
As a caveat, there is blood and a sexual assault in just the first episode, as well as use of theâ€¦bathroom. But, with the deliriously nutso dramatics of “American Horror Story” on break and the terrifically gripping “The Following” having only six episodes left, “Bates Motel” offers enough creepy nerve and subtlety that seem to be missing on TV. It seems many more violent thrills and character layers are in store, so check in!