To quote noted television critic Dorothy Parker, “If you can make it through the pilot of Bates Motel, you can make it through the series.” (Maybe that’s more of a paraphrase.) Regardless! Settle in for a creepy-crawly good time on Mondays on A&E.
First, however, you must survive the wink-winks of the first episode, which finds almost every character saying, “Norman Bates!” like he’s a firstie-lastie, which he’s just not. The pilot borders dangerously close to bad legerdemain, from the timeless aspect of the first 15 minutes that is destroyed by the abrupt appearance of modern teenagers (Norman Bates has a certain reed-like ’60s style all his own) to the nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s original Psycho. That menacing house! Those motel rooms! Putting a body into the trunk!
Oh yes, because in Bates Motel, the kill-happy character isn’t Norman. Not yet, at least. It’s his mother, Norma (yes, really), played by Vera Farmiga in a go-for-broke performance.
But put aside your doubts at pilot’s end and tune in for the second installment, because it’s as addictive and delicious as anything currently on TV. Norma and Norman, you see, are not the weirdest people in town. They’re not even the most violent. And despite evidence to the contrary (like Norma changing in front of Norman and chastising him for looking away by saying, “For goodness sake, Norman, I’m your mother!”), the Bates family may not even be the most twisted.
There is, for instance, their new town’s method for dealing with criminals. I believe it is the Biblical system of an eye for an eye, which means that when one man is set on fire, the suspected arsonist is also burned. Hung by his feet in the town square and set on fire. That’s how that revenge rule goes, right? An eye for an eye but seriously we will fuck you up so much more so don’t come back for our other eye?
Norman also has a half-brother, Dylan (well hellooooo Max Thieriot), whose relationship with Norma can be deduced from her entry in his cellphone: The Whore. They’re just a very dysfunctional family, trying to make a living in what increasingly seems to be the town from Dark Shadows! And Norman has a vaguely British “friend” who suffers from cystic fibrosis, which does not stop her from trying to investigate the real-life inspiration for the disturbing manga that Norman found under the carpet in a motel room. Oh, and they discover a massive pot field. And her father is a taxidermist!
The original lure of Bates Motel might very well have been the source material and a possible rubbernecking impetus to tune in. But the takeaway is that this is very much its own creation, anchored by Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman. And really, there are far worse people to spend a Monday night with.