Horror is a very popular genre on television right now, with The Walking Dead crushing in the ratings, American Horror Story earning accolades left and right, and Hannibal being just plain awesome. Earlier this year, A&E, a network not known for anything but formulaic, procedural dramas, decided to enter the ring with Bates Motel, a prequel to the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. Imagine my surprise, then, that Bates Motel is every bit as worthy of praise as its peers.
Bates Motel is set in the modern day, and thus inspired by, rather than confined to, the film. The setting looks identical to that which viewers are familiar with, and some clothing and hairstyle choices are pulled straight from the source material. It pays homage quite clearly, though later episodes really take some license to go their own direction.
The reason to give a prequel story like this a chance, and the method through which it soars so well, is that it is made by producers of Lost and Friday Night Lights. These two amazing shows knew how to do character development and slow-burning plots, and they apply it here again. Combine this with a thoroughly creepy tone and place, you have a heck of a TV show. Plus, the cast is terrific.
As the story begins, Norman (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) moves with his mother, Nora (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air, The Departed), to a run-down motel in a small town after the suspicious death of his father. Here, the seventeen-year-old boy tries to build a normal life for himself with friends (Olivia Cooke and Nicola Peltz), but is hampered by his controlling mother.
Yes, Norma is exactly what we’d expect her to be, having seen the old movie, or even just knowing she named her son after herself. She’s harsh and unfeeling, despite her assertions of love. She holds Norman a prisoner as much as a son, and even involves him in her murderous schemes, or at least covering them up. She is manipulating and shaping him into the killer that he himself will become, and making sure she sinks claws into him that will stay attached far beyond her death.
Not that Norma is the only dangerous thing in town. It’s hard to trust Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell, Lost), even after Norma worms her way into the arms of his Deputy, Zack Shelby (Mike Vogel, Under the Dome). Pot fields and sex-slave rings abound. Creepiness is everywhere.
Norman’s path isn’t completely lost yet. He’s a nice, obedient boy, most of the time, and he has an older half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), to look up to. He also has a teacher, Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy, Once Upon a Time), that sees untapped potential within him. There is always the slim chance he might get out of this story without being ruined, though I doubt that would satisfy the fans.
High definition is a must for this series. Given the dark tone, there are plenty of shadows and muted colors. This blu-ray release does a fantastic job of showing off the blacks and layers within in 1080p. It’s nice to get such crispness from such richly detained sets and props. The soundtrack is well mixed in DTS 5.1. If a production is going to go this much trouble to deliver a high quality release, both visual and audio, it is worth it to seek the best picture and sound available.
The special features are unfortunately few. There are deleted scenes, of course, and a really cool Paley Center Panel included. For those who buy the initial release, a few of Jiao’s (Diana Bang) neat sketches are tucked in. But that’s it, no audio commentaries or behind-the-scenes extras, sadly.
Bates Motel: Season One is on sale now.