Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) in "Bates Motel."
“Everyone seems better in old movies — even bad ones,” Norman Bates explains in an early episode of A&E’s “Bates Motel,” which debuts tonight at 10.
Norman should know from old movies, what with him being the villain of one of the greatest of all time: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 black and white masterpiece “Psycho,” in which Janet Leigh has the unfortunate luck to stop for rest and a shower at the Bates Motel.
The new series, from “Lost” showrunner Carlton Cuse and “Friday Night Lights” producer Kerry Ehrin, isn’t exactly a prequel, though it does show how a teenage Norman (played here by Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) assume ownership of the motel, and it provides insight into the twisted mother/son relationship that leads to the Hitchcock/Anthony Perkins version of Norman.
The series is set in the present — though the Bates family wardrobe and the furnishings in the old house that came with the motel very deliberately evoke the period of the movie — and Cuse and Ehrin have said that the series doesn’t necessarily lead up to Marion Crane checking in while Norman goes to fetch his wig and best stabbing knife.
It’s all a bit confusing, as is “Bates Motel” as a whole — not in terms of the storytelling, which in the three episodes I’ve seen is fairly straightforward, but in terms of how exactly it’s expected to work as a TV show.
First, the good news: Highmore and, especially, Farmiga, are fantastic as the creepy, deeply dysfunctional duo at the heart of the show. Highmore, all grown up from his “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” days, is gangly and awkward and still in a way that very much evokes Perkins without feeling like an impersonation. (His American accent is all over the map in the pilot, but gets more consistent as the series moves along.) Meanwhile, Farmiga (“Up in the Air”) gives flirty, passive-aggressive, manipulative, wonderful life to Norma Bates — a character who doesn’t appear (alive, at least) in the original film(*) but casts an enormous shadow over it.
(*) I should, of course, note the existence of several “Psycho” sequels, including the made-for-TV film “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which included flashbacks featuring Henry Thomas as a young Norman and Olivia Hussey as Norma. There was also a previous attempt to do a “Bates Motel” series, starring Bud Cort as a man who befriends Norman in the asylum and inherits the motel after his death, but only a pilot was ever produced. This “Bates Motel” is ignoring all of that.
The early episodes know just how far to nudge the creep level without making it feel like Norman is two minutes away from turning serial killer. In one scene, Norma casually changes her blouse while Norman’s in the room; when she catches him blushing, she says, “Lord, Noman. I’m your mother. It’s not like it’s weird or anything.” In another, Norma’s son from a previous marriage Dylan (Max Thieriot) tries and fails to get through to his half-brother, telling him, “You don’t get it, do you, Norman? She’s ruined you.”
The atmosphere is not only retro, but suitably soaked in dread, and the supporting cast features interesting performances from “Lost” alum Nestor Carbonell as the local sheriff and Mike Vogel (“Pan Am”) as a deputy who takes a shine to Norma.
Three episodes in, though, I’m still not sure what exactly the series is. In theory, it’s about the creation of a serial killer, which simultaneously feels both appropriate and like overkill in an environment that already offers “Dexter,” “Criminal Minds” and “The Following,” and will soon welcome NBC’s own serial killer prequel series “Hannibal.” There’s definitely an interesting story in how an abused woman raises her son to become an abuser of women. (If, that is, what Cuse and Ehrin intend him to become. But if they don’t, they might have chosen a less famous brand to play around with.)
But Norman’s still far enough away from what he’ll become that the series has to generate plot and obstacle to keep mother and son busy in the meantime, and it’s there where “Bates Motel” is at its dodgiest.
The series doesn’t seem to be going into a supernatural direction — “Psycho” may have inspired slasher films that incorporated that material, but Norman himself was very human — but there’s at least an attempt to place the Pacific Northwest town Norman has moved to above a metaphorical version of the Hellmouth from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The place may look quaint and pristine, but people are up to dark, dark things that they don’t talk about while they’re out shopping for artisanal cheese.
And while all those dark shenanigans provide something of a plot engine for the series, they mainly just invite comparisons to other current dark cable dramas. There’s a scene in the pilot, for instance, where a corpse has to be disposed of, and I spent the whole time waiting for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman to show up and show how it’s done. (Though, in fairness, Walt and Jesse weren’t so good at it themselves at the beginning.) And the town has a strip club where business can be transacted, because of course it does.
The lead performances, and the way that relationship is written, are all excellent enough to stick around a little while longer in the hopes that “Bates Motel” as a whole becomes something more interesting. But a lot of that may also depend on what exactly Cuse and Ehrin want Norman Bates to turn into, and how quickly. But based on early episodes, the old movie version of Norman — who only had to inhabit a 109-minute feature (and not even all of it) — clearly had a better circumstance.