It all seemed to be going to well until Norman Bates busted out his iPod. Up until then (and granted, it was just a few minutes of airtime), it seemed like A&E's new scripted series, Bates Motel, was at least trying to preserve the legacy and reality of its source material, Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic Psycho. But no, this prequel series, which premiered last night, is set in the present, an act of folding time for the sake of...what? Not scaring the kids away with something that would have to be set in the '40s to preserve the timeline set by the film (and Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same name) while chronicling the adolescence of Norman Bates?
One of the original things we both agreed on is we didn't want to do an homage. We thought there was no value in retelling a story that we were never going to tell as well as Alfred Hitchcock. We just used these characters as a point of departure. Kerry had this idea, thinking about this in terms of being a tragedy, which I instantly responded to. We just made it ours. It really became our story, taking these characters as launching points.
I see bastardization, they say respect. OK, whatever. Not like it really matters. Psycho has proven tough enough to withstand the most brutal of hackings. A line of follow-ups with diminishing returns (including the 1990 made-for-TV prequel Psycho IV: The Beginning, and another pilot-turned-TV-movie in 1987, also called Bates Motel), Gus Van Sant's needless, almost shot-for-shot 1998 remake, and countless B-level copycat slashers have done nothing to diminish the status of Hitchcock's original as one of the most effective horror films ever made. It is synonymous with the genre. There wouldn't be so many attempts to ride its coattails if it weren't.
And so, instead of getting upset about the ridiculous, trashy nature of Bates Motel, that nature can be enjoyed on its own terms. Yes, this crappy show is part of a legacy that is key to the shaping of an arm of contemporary pop culture, but it's also just a crappy show. Its wide-eyed Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) flips in and out of an English accent (a cornerstone of camp) and is pursued by a pack of five outrageously attractive high-school vixens, despite his dweeby awkwardness. He attends a party that is scored by My Bloody Valentine and then Radiohead – when the latter plays, the kids slow dance. Meanwhile, his on-the-verge mother, Norma, is played by the acclaimed Vera Farmiga, who is either absurdly unpretentious in her role selection, or who consciously surrounds herself with material that she is better than, the way an insecure beautiful person might surround him or herself with less attractive people. (I mean, have you seen Orphan? I love it, but oh boy is it intensely pungent garbage.) She carries herself with a catlike affect, a waking slumber that suggests participatory unwillingness. Her character ends up stabbing a stock frustrated townie eight times after he has kicked her in the stomach, sliced her with a knife, gagged her, bent her over a table, handcuffed her to it and raped her in the most visceral scene of the sort that I've ever seen made for TV. That part isn't enjoyably trashy, it's just trashy.
Upon discovering his mother's murdered rapist, Norman howls, "There's a dead man on the floor! There's a lake of blood!" And then the show is enjoyable again.
In a perverse way, the B-ness of Bates Motel is true to Psycho's legacy, too. While a box office smash from the start, it took time to gain the critical acclaim that it eventually did. In the excellent horror history Reel Terror (check its cover if you need more evidence of Psycho as a genre synonym), David Konow runs down the varying assessments upon release ("A first-rate mystery thriller," wrote The Hollywood Reporter; "Third-rate Hitchcock," wrote Esquire) and the eventual turn-around:
[Star] Janet Leigh recalled the reviews being 60 percent negative, 40 percent positive...Hitchock had seen reviews for his films turn around before, and several years after the initial release of Psycho, critics gave it a second look and saw a much different movie. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times first called it "a blot on an honorable career," but then changed his opinion and had it on his ten best list for the year. Time called the shower scene "one of the messiest, most nauseating murders ever filmed," then in 1966 the magazine called it "superlative" and "masterly."
I'm not expecting a turnaround like that for Bates Motel, although the show's brand of good badness does tend to ripen over time. That, of course, is a different sort of sea change — I don't think anyone's going to mistake this for landmark television anytime in the future. I'll be watching just to see how things progress, though – and to see how they deal with the whole cross-dressing, possible mother-fucking thing.