TV Report Card | 'Bates Motel' Season 1 Review

Overview: “Bates Motel” tells the origin story of one of film’s most memorable villains, Norman Bates and just as effectively, his families’.

Storyline Direction: This was hands down the best written show of the 2012-2013 season. It was taught and thrilling. There were no missteps. I repeat none! It was a masterpiece. The slow build ratcheted up each week and blew our minds with one twist after another. All of the characters were written with depth and fleshed out with resonance.

It seamlessly weaved several different genres together; drama, mystery, thriller, romance, and even some comedy. Its momentum picked up each episode and before swinging to the next unfolding plot, it masterfully touched on all of the beats of the current one.

The trickiest part of doing this series was creating something new with a character that is such an icon in cinema. For anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “Psycho”, the thing that it preys on is the innocence of Norman Bates, the inconceivability that a soul as kind as his, could be capable of such evil. It put a face on a new terror, the person you would least expect, the quiet guy down the street.

As much as Spielberg’s “Jaws” had people running out of the ocean in fear of sharks, “Psycho” had people fearing an enemy that wasn’t so easy to identify. “Bates Motel” explores more than just the backstory of the notorious “Psycho”, it is looking to answer the biggest questions that viewers of the movie have always had, “Why?” and perhaps even “How?”. Why would Norman, such a seemingly nice guy, do such terrible things? How is it possible; that someone so good could become someone so evil? 

In the end, the prime suspects in the making of such a person are nurture vs. nature. “Bates Motel” examines and weighs both of these arguments. The show has made it clear that Norman is mentally ill. He has black outs and enters fugue states. He was already fighting an uphill battle from the moment he was born given the eventual manifestation of his illness.

As for nurture, he hasn’t lacked any of that from his mother Norma, who is eccentric to say the least and all too plugged-in to the world around her; she doesn’t exhibit any characteristics of mental illness though. Her mothering of Norman, while very hands on, hasn’t brought on nor can it be explained as the reason for his eventual fate and by extension hers.

The core of “Bates” is a character study of not only Norman but the rest of his family as well. It is fascinating to watch the dynamics between these characters. Bringing Dylan, Norman’s brother, in was a brilliant move. He was an excellent conduit between the audience and the crazy world of the show.

Just as we thought he was the “normal” one, he turned out to have a few things in common with the rest of his family. The toll that Norma’s obsession with Norman has had on her relationship with her other son was interesting fodder for the show. You want things to turn out well for these characters and knowing that it won’t, makes watching the show the equivalent to watching a train crash. You can’t look away.

Production Caliber: The iconic hotel has been reproduced in Canada and it looks identical to the film version from 53 years ago. The town that surrounds the hotel is a character unto itself. There is the distinct feeling of small town America and an overall spookiness that casts the mood brilliantly. The production feels rich and is on par with any movie.

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Performance Quality: Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga gave the best performance of the entire TV season with her portrayal of Norma Bates, one of the most fascinating characters that television has seen. She was the quintessential ingredient to the show and without her, it would’ve been a completely different experience and not for the better.

When the show was first conceived and I heard about it; the first thing that came to mind was “how are they going to pull off who Norman’s mother is?” Up until this show, the character of Norma Bates had only been a disembodied voice, an apparition to Norman’s psyche. Farmiga didn’t have a lot to draw from and yet she created something that seemed to always exist, the missing puzzle piece to the mystery of Norman Bates.

Her incarnation of Norma ran the gamut from one extreme to another. She was strong and defiant, needy and vulnerable, and in the next breath manipulative and genuine, a cacophony of contradictions. Something that never changed was that she personified being a fighter and a survivor, someone who thrived in the face of adversity. She had an admirable spirit that made her magnetic pull on those around her completely understandable.

Farmiga has long been one of the most underappreciated actresses out there. She has tremendous range and when given the opportunity in movies, she has stolen the spotlight completely (i.e. “Running Scared”). Movies simply don’t write for women on the complex level that they deserve most of the time. On TV that is a different story and the collaboration between the writers and Farmiga has been a tremendous pleasure to watch. Seeing her skill set truly utilized has been one of the most rewarding things about this show.

Freddie Highmore, in a casting coup playing Norman, isn’t to his credit doing a carbon copy impression of Anthony Perkins. He has crafted something that is all his own with his version of Norman, still sweet and gentle with a touch of strange thrown in for good measure. Everything about his performance is nuanced and he doesn’t use bold emotions in excess.

His restraint bares the significance of also conveying how Norman has also had to hold back from revealing his raw emotions whether, out of respect for other people's feelings or not feeling strong enough to reveal them in the first place. It is a spot-on interpretation of everything you ever imagined about a younger Norman Bates, his performance is a revelation. He is easily one of the best actors of the younger generation. At 21, he demonstrates vast maturity in his work.

For anyone who thinks that this is just Highmore playing himself, check out “The Art of Getting By” and you’ll quickly learn that is not the case. As much as the show revolves around the mystery of the town, the heart of the show is the relationship between Norman and his mother. Highmore and Farmiga nail the complicated and often times, bizarre dynamic, between the pair in a pitch-perfect tightrope of emotion.

As for the other members of the cast, who are superlative, Max Thieriot has developed into quite the actor. His performance was a mix of genuine good guy and a hint of danger. As Dylan, he demonstrated the complex emotions of a person who has built up walls to protect himself from the quicksand that is his mother and the compassion that drives his gravitational pull towards her. Their relationship was equally as fascinating as Norma and Norman’s.

You ached to see them resolve their past and also figure out what had led to the animosity in the first place. Farmiga and Thieriot crafted another intriguing and complex mother/son dynamic with Dylan and Norma.  The best way to describe his performance was simmering. It was always on the verge of something and it was never at anything less than a boil.

Olivia Cooke played Emma, Norman’s best friend and the girl holding an unrequited torch for him. It was a really edgy and challenging role as Emma has cystic fibrosis. Cooke demonstrated great poise in the part, equal parts heartbreaking and feisty. She had so many moments that were tremendous during the season. She played Emma as too strong and determined to feel sorry for herself and that made your heart go out to her even more.

When she finally told Norman off during the season finale, Cooke’s eyes brimmed with an emotional agony that spoke of yet another pinned hope that hadn’t worked out. The writers were wise to hold back from too much dialogue in that scene because she didn’t need them; her expression said more than words could.

Nicola Peltz gave a convincing turn as the girl every guy in town wants and every girl can’t bring themselves to hate because she is so freaking nice. Peltz played Bradley with an innocence that didn’t grasp the true depth of her sexual hold over guys as it seemed to escape her at every turn or so we think.

As confused as Norman was over his behavior throughout the season, Peltz played Bradley’s awakening to the parts of herself she hadn’t quite understood with equal measure. Nestor Carbonell kept us on the edge of our seats as he kept the mysterious sheriff’s motives hidden deep beneath the surface.

Musical Score: The score was effective and ominous, easily setting the mood.

Overall Grade: A+, the best show of the season. Showrunners Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin delivered a show that was equal parts thrilling and dramatic. The equilibrium of the show was always on kilter and the performances they got from everyone, top drawer. They really have something here.

The town is spooky and the overall feeling of the show brings about an uneasiness that keeps you alert as to what’s coming next. It feels like anything is possible with this show. There’s no limit to what might be coming and that’s pretty impressive for a story that we all know the ending to.

[Featured Image by A&E]