A&E reopens Bates Motel to retell the story of Norman Bates in an intriguing prequel series that creates an expanded Bates family and setting as it seeks to explain how a teenage Norman eventually went psycho.
The story of Norman Bates has been told many times since the original 1960 Psycho. There were two big-screen sequels (1983 and 1986), a 1990 TV movie prequel and a 1998 remake. There was even a 1987 TV movie, also called Bates Motel, about a friend of Norman's from the psych ward who inherits the Bates Motel and reopens it after Norman's death.
The latest retelling — from writers Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) and Carlton Cuse (Lost) — is more psychological thriller than horror show. Not to say that horrible things don't happen in Bates Motel — they do, especially in the pilot, which features several deaths and a rape scene — but the emphasis is squarely on the characters, their relationships, and the psychological torment than can, perhaps, create a killer.
Although a prequel, Bates Motel (10 p.m. Monday) is set in the present. That might come as a surprise to viewers watching the opening scenes of the premiere because Norman (Freddie Highmore, Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his mother, Norma (Vera Garmiga, Up in the Air), both evince a mid-20th-century taste for clothing, cars and movies. Only when they interact with other characters is there a reminder of the contemporary setting.
The premiere episode begins with Norman stumbling out of his bedroom (was he drugged?) to find the corpse of his father elsewhere in the house. Bates Motel doesn't outright say that Norma was the killer — who knows, maybe we'll eventually learn it was Norman doing the deed at Norma's behest — but it is implied.
Six months later, Norman and Norma have left Arizona and moved to White Pine Bay, Ore., where Norma buys the soon-to-be-renamed Seafairer Motel and the large house on the hill behind it. Turns out she bought the house after it went into foreclosure, and the previous owner, who still lives nearby, has left all sorts of antique furniture inside for reasons that are never explained. This owner, a bit of a drunk, stops by as a sort of Unwelcome Wagon and threatens Norma, which sets up some of the mayhem that follows.
In the aftermath, a suspicious local sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell, Lost) stops by with deputy Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel, Pan Am) to ask questions; Norman makes friends with Bradley (Nicola Peltz), a popular girl at school, and Emma (Olivia Cooke), a sickly student who pulls an oxygen tank after her through the high-school hallways.
Episode two introduces Norman's bad-boy half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), whose relationship with Norma is distant, and, frankly, more normal than Norman's momma's-boy closeness. Dylan even mocks his mother and half-brother, saying, "Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Bates," in the show's third episode.
That relationship between Norman and Norma is at the crux of Bates Motel. She's smothering, jealous, and demanding, at times like a more discreet Livia Soprano. Even so, Norman, while sometimes chafing at her constrictive grip on his life, remains devoted. At one point he announces, "You're everything to me and I don't ever want to live in a world without you."