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Blu-ray Review: ‘Bates Motel’ (2013), Season One – Psychoville

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In the early days of film, it was often said that “sequels aren’t equals”. And, nine times out of ten, those who quoted such Tinseltown scripture were sadly not mistaken. I vividly remember seeing the trailer for Psycho II in theaters as a young lad, to wit many of those in attendance who surrounded me grumbled, groaned, and vociferously pondered whether or not somebody couldn’t have come up with something more original. Indeed, such loud thoughts reemerged in theaters across the nation more than a decade-and-a-half later when Gun Van Sant’s infamous remake of the original Psycho caused audiences to question just what those in power within the confines of Hollywood were cutting their cocaine with.

Sure, Van Sant matched virtually every shot as the great Alfred Hitchcock originally envisioned them – whilst leaving the shooting script’s dialogue practically unchanged, to boot. Sadly, Gus forgot to include any soul in his feature; opting to produce a very colorful Xerox copy instead – which completely failed to captivate anyone with an IQ over 4. So, what’s a boy – or more importantly, the studio that owns the rights to the Psycho, to do when they want to keep the series alive and well without actually having to suggest to those bored younger audience members vegetating comfortably apathetic-like in front of their television sets/computers/mobile devices that they sit back and watch the old black-and-white flick?

You make a contemporary television preboot (prequel/reboot), of course.

Yeah, it sounds insane. But then, these days, everything has to be rebooted, remade, and/or reimagined – or else it just isn’t hip, people! Now then, how do you frame such a series? Well, you take a heavy (if not nauseatingly familiar) serving from another preboot series – say, Smallville – and make it spookier. You know: Psychoville.

Yeah, now I know I sound insane. But it’s true, I assure you. Bear with me here, people.

bates-motel-season-one-blu-ray-review-blogcriticsBates Motel opens with the suspicious death of Norman Bates’ father in Arizona – a cataclysmic event in the life of the young, mentally unstable lad (played here by Freddie Highmore, who is no doubt attempting to erase that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory item off of his résumé) with a strong codependent (and decidedly unhealthy) relationship with his controlling mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). Packing their belongings up, Norma decides to purchase a rundown motel with a charming old house in a seemingly-sleepy bayside community on the Oregon Coast. Unfortunately, the shady realtor (is there any other kind?) who sells the Bates family this lot neglects to inform her there’s a possibility of a highway bypass being constructed in the near future – which would essentially wipe her new business off the map before it even gets off the ground.

Of course, when you’re Mrs. Bates, you don’t need to worry about such a disaster from happening: you just have to alienate the population with your crazy, murderous activities. A bloodthirsty visit by the previous owner of the house/motel winds up with a butchered corpse on the kitchen floor – which becomes the first of many secrets the mother/son duo keep between each other. But, as it turns out, this community has its own share of murderous secrets: Asian sex slave rings, illegal pot fields (in Oregon?), creepy and deceitful characters left and right, and an extremely strong disregard for the law from all – even those who are supposedly there to enforce it. It’s as if a meteor storm of crazy (or Kryptonite?) hit this area several years before and turned everyone into bad people.

Norma herself takes on the Mr. and Mrs. Kent persona here, which is easy for the character considering she’s already certifiable from the get-go. Dashing between toys-in-the-attic to whatever constitutes as normal for her, Norma is able to scheme and manipulate those around her to the best of her abilities (Norman, of course, being her pride and joy to control) – still finding time to indulge in her own adventures and story arcs, most of which involve the local sheriff’s department, as headed by the shady Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell – yes, Batmanuel, himself!) and the equally fishy Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel) – the latter of whom Norma influences all the way into her arms.

And then we have our young Clark Kent/Superman: Norman. Already teeter-totting upon that fine line of sanity, the good Norman strives for a normal existence: friends, a gal pal, good times, etc. Sadly, between his mother’s deep psychological grip on his delicate mind and the poor genetic strands he seems to have inherited in the first place, Norman has his evil Kal-El side – which we witness progress even within the first season. As we all know (or at least should know), this is doomed to culminate with our anti-hero inevitably donning his dead mum’s clothes and butchering folk. But that’s years away in this fable, right? Well, maybe so. When you preboot something, you can pretty much tell the story any which way you want. After all, according to the original series, Norman was 12 when he murdered his mum. Here, he’s 17. It’s all relative here.

Speaking of relatives, the writers of Bates Motel must have fully realized that a story revolving around a crazy mother and her doomed adolescent son might not be the highest quality moral fiber a television show can offer (this, mind you, in a world where Reality TV trumps all), and the sight of poor Norman Bates mentally deteriorating before us is not exactly a character to root for. While this contemporary Norman does enjoy his own occasional adventure with this series’ equivalents of Superman’s high school chums, loves, and enemies (portrayed here for the most part by actresses Olivia Cooke and Nicola Peltz), the fact of the matter is there is nobody to show him the light. Enter the previously unknown half-brother character, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot) – who serves as a half-assed angel for Norman’s unconscious villainous side, even though Dylan himself is a rather lowly guy.

Look, you’ll probably have to see this show for yourself and tilt your head/squint your eyes just right in order to see the bizarre comparison I’m failing at making here, but I stand by my assessment: Bates Motel is to the Psycho legacy what Smallville was to Superman. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That other series started out quite nicely way back when, before its writers kept having to stretch the show onward and outward into other DC Comics realms, never quite sure if finally graduating their Clark Kent to legitimate Man of Steel level was in the plan or not.

Likewise, having Norman Bates commit matricide early on in this series might not be in the cards – since she is the only other (really) important character here. All of the others are expendable in my opinion. That’s if the series has a successful run, that is. You never know when the powers that be will unplug that motel sign, do you? Hopefully, Bates Motel gets a chance to strut about for a bit longer – so long as it doesn’t get bigheaded and pretentious like Smallville did (oh, damn, I compared those two again!). It took me an episode or two to get past the modern-day setting (today’s audiences can’t fathom a point in history where people didn’t have such things as the Internet, after all), but the show grew on me after that. The casting of character actor Jere Burns as a heavy for a few episodes this season was also nice to see.

Universal brings all ten episodes of Bates Motel: Season One home in a two-disc Blu-ray/Digital UV release that presents the series in its original 1.77:1 aspect ratio. The visual quality here is as perfect as you can expect it to be for a newer series (strong colors, detail, and contrast overall), and the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless audio mix delivers all of the dialogue, sound effects, and music (with the occasional shameful modern music plug all shows must do these days) admirably. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included here, and the 50GB discs also houses several deleted scenes and a Q&A session with select cast and crew.

Recommended. For now.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.