Lost producer Carlton Cuse has picked the perfect next project: with Bates Motel, at least we all know how it will end. But despite that certainty, I spent most of the pilot episode of this modern-day Psycho prequel wondering if Cuse and co-developer Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) know where they’re going.
Psycho was the second horror movie I ever watched (The Birds was the first), and it made a lasting impression—and not just on me; it’s surely on many top ten lists. Psycho’s greatest strength, though, isn’t its score or its gore or its surprises, and we don’t call Hitchcock the master of suspense because he enjoys dapper braces. It’s the pacing, the tone, the ineffable mood that stick with us, long after we’ve watched it.
In contrast, Bates Motel barely compares. And it shouldn’t: a decent Psycho re-tread is as impossible as Pierre Menard’s version of the Quixote. But 20 minutes into Psycho, you feel the tension rising and suspense building. 20 minutes into Bates Motel, I started to wonder what sort of show it was supposed to be.
Then there was a brutal, unnecessary rape scene. And I had my answer.
“First You Dream, Then You Die” switches between tones. Sometimes it is funny enough to remind me of how my mother used to joke that I should save up all my material on her for a book of “mom-oirs” (the trauma of not being allowed to stay up ‘til 2am on a school night could have gotten an entire chapter). Norma Bates is laughably, grossly, attached to her son—and if Norma were played by anyone other than the delightful Vera Farmiga, this would have turned into a wacky sitcom. Freddy Highmore’s Norman Bates is more of a wildcard: he’s 17 going on 5 going on 30, with the mixture of maturity and naiveté that many children who have bonded only with adults have.
But Bates Motel is also a cable show that could be subtitled “Bildungsroman of an Oedipal Psychopath,” and that—apparently—means rape. I don’t like rape on TV. Deaths don’t bother me too much, as a character dying only reminds me that this is fiction. Rape seems like a nasty trick: cause pain and physical suffering to the characters, horrify some viewers, titillate the prurient others, bring it up when convenient later on. If character deaths remind me of fictionality, rape reminds me that I’m meant to believe these characters are real. And I don’t understand why so many TV writers have felt the desire to rape their characters lately, why they think it’s “necessary,” why they think we want to watch it happen.
So there’s painful realism and minor gore. There’s a young man struggling to find his way, and a mother with an inappropriate attachment to him. There’s also a sheriff who seems to know more than he’s saying, played by Nestor Carbonell. (I didn’t know he would be in this show, so that was a lovely surprise.) There’s the possibility that the town of White Pine Bay will become a major character in the show, especially given both Ehrin’s and Cuse’s penchants for creating dynamic places with a vivid internal life.
There is, in other words, potential. The last scene of the pilot is utterly mysterious and apparently disconnected to everything else—I can’t tell yet if that’s a cheap trick to get us to tune in next week, or a hint of a fun mysterious backstory to the creepy setting. And that's it: underwhelming, potentially better, maybe not, who knows.
Two out of four best friends.