Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Life and Times of Norman Bates: Bates Motel

Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) purchase a hotel to run in "Bates Motel."

One of my favorite new TV shows that premiered this past year is Bates Motel. You won't find it on any of the four major networks. It's tucked away, hidden on A&E along with the unlikely pairings of a plethora of reality shows, such as "Duck Dynasty," "Storage Wars," and "Hoarders." 

While watching a marathon of reruns today on A&E, I thought about how remarkably well the show has been put together and how happy I am that it is continuing into a second season, which will premiere tomorrow, Monday, March 3 at 9:00 p.m. 

When rumors circulated that a Psycho movie spin-off had been produced for television, I felt a cringe. I wondered: How on earth will the show play out? How can you take a masterpiece, such as Alfred Hitchock's bone chilling, black and white 1960 film Psycho, and turn it into a television series with enough interest and plot potential to keep audiences enthralled for at least three years, the ideal minimum television show life span? Fortunately, the daring new series on A&E is a huge success.

The secret in this case is to stack your deck with talent. The acting is top notch and completely believable. The writing is well constructed. But perhaps the real star of the show is the ambience created through the combination of well chosen blue collar costumes; rustic period sets placed in the drizzly Pacific Northwest in British Columbia, Canada; excellent sound, lighting and backing music tracks; and most importantly, quality direction. There are moments when the viewer forgets that this is a one-hour television show on a non-premium cable network channel, and not the work of highly paid Hollywood movie directors and cinematographers working on a multi-million dollar movie.

There's one particular scene in Season 1, Episode 3, where the camera finds the very disturbed teenage Norman lying on his bed, his eyes wide open, the sun passing quickly from day into night, indicating that he has laid there in a catatonic state for several hours. Norman begins to hallucinate that his mother is lecturing him, something we discover occurs frequently.
MOM:  You were right. As long as Shelby has that belt, he can control us. He can make us do things, things we don't want to do. Just like your father did.
NORMAN:  We can't let that happen. Not again.
MOM:  This is all your fault.
NORMAN:  I know mother. There's something wrong with me.
MOM:  You know what you have to do, don't you?
NORMAN:  I have to get that belt.
The context of Bates Motel, the television show, is a well thought out predecessor to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie, Psycho. which was based on the 1959 thriller novel by Robert Bloch. The Bates Motel writers have taken a lot of creative license, imagining how the good-looking intelligent young Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore) might have gotten himself into such a predicament where he ends up living in a decrepit hotel on a forgotten old highway with his domineering and unnaturally obsessive, controlling mother Norma (Vera Farmiga). Many questions are answered in the first season. 

We learn that Norman's father, Sam, died tragically after Norman and his mother killed him after he attacked her. However, Norma staged the death to appear as an accident, collected the life insurance money, and moved her 17-year old son with her from Arizona to the tiny town of White Pine Bay, Oregon. She buys an old 12-room motel on highway 88, puts up a Bates Motel sign, and begins renovations in preparation to open. However, trouble is on the horizon: the city is planning to build a bypass to highway 88 which will greatly diminish traffic, potentially putting her new fledgling company out of business.

Norma's son, Dylan Massett (Max Thierlot), from a different father, moves in during episode 2 and finds a job with an illegal marijuana growing business, apparently the small town's primary economic base.   

Death surrounds Norman, as characters are killed off faster than those on the "Walking Dead." He becomes obsessed with the macabre, learning taxidermy from the father (Ian Hart) of Emma DeCody (Olivia Cooke), a young and beautiful terminally ill classmate with cystic fibrosis.

We witness first hand the early signs of schizophrenia, watching as a seemingly normal fine-looking young man begins to lose his grasp on reality. We learn that his mother Norma is also not quite stable, yet hides her mental illness quite well through lying and taking advantage of her beautiful looks to manipulate well-meaning powerful men. We find that no one is perfect, that there are flaws in everyone, that corruption runs rampant and pure innocence does not truly exist.

There hasn't been such a dark and twisted intelligent plot featured on television since Twin Peaks.

Bates Motel Website

Just for a chuckle, check out the cleverly assembled Bates Motel website, complete with a cartoon map of the town of White Pine Bay, Oregon where the television show is based. On it you will discover childhood family photos of young Norman and a gift shop featuring collectibles from the show.

Though there is no White Pine Bay and no Highway 88 (or even State Route 88) in the state of Oregon, the series setting seems to be loosely based on the small town of Coos Bay off Highway 101 on the coast of Oregon. The original Bates Motel in Bloch's novel was based on the small town of Fairvale, California. There is a State Route 88 which runs from Stockton, CA near Sacramento to the state of Nevada.