Pilot: Bates Motel, First You Dream, Then You Die

 Posted by on March 21, 2013 at 12:51 pm  Television
Mar 212013


The following is essentially spoiler-free.

I’ve always been intrigued by the prequel; the backstory– especially when the “frontstory” is one you know well. Every superhero has its origin tale. I get more of a kick out of discovering that origin later on than from getting it at the beginning. The discovery of what came before, (or sometimes in between), evokes the same wonder in me that I would experience when I was a little kid and I would see either a tiny or oversized version of something familiar. A giant Hershey Kiss was magical. Dollhouse furniture; miniature chime clocks and china and bathmats. A visit inside Jeannie’s bottle. This twist of perspective on something I already know holds endless fascination for me. And actually it’s a little similar– meeting the younger version of someone you know isn’t that different than a tiny Heinz ketchup bottle, is it?

I’m not alone; so-called reboots have gone from being a cultural phenomena to a cultural standard. “Lois and Clark” premiered in 1993 (oh hey, I just got the “Lewis and Clark” sound of that– am I the actual last one?), and years later we got “Smallville”. Gregory Maguire’s books have become classics in their own right, and led to “Wicked”, one of the biggest Broadway musicals of all time. (I have not seen this new “Oz” film, but I know people are digging it.) I’ve now lived through several generations of Batman retellings.

The new version can only be effective when the source material is incredibly familiar. That’s the whole trick. And so, the creation of the New-Old requires an acknowledgement of the source as icon. Requires it or forces one. If its iconic status isn’t already established, a fine re-telling may well transform the source itself– elevate it.

I say may. Don’t even try to sell me on any kind of Carrie Chronicles.

When “Smallville” premiered, I suddenly got that Superman is the great American myth. The Wizard of Oz is a myth.

So… Psycho as myth? Who’da thunk it? But it works. It is a journey, several journeys, and it is just as intriguing and startling today as it ever was. There are aspects of that film that are unshakeable from our minds– and in the minds of our culture even if you’ve never seen it. Everyone knows about the shower scene. Everyone.

All that said, a story is its own story. The question is, how is this one?

Meet Norman Bates, age 15, and Norma, his mom. They just moved to town and bought themselves a motel and a big house. The year is 2013. And something, for certain, is rotten in Denmark.

These two are weird, but not too weird. You get that she’s crazy, but crazy like people are, not crazy like most people are not. And the kid, even less so. They love each other a lot, and it’s intense and definitely a little off, but if you didn’t know the future, if you didn’t know the genre, it would not be entirely alarming. Not entirely.

Norman stands up to his mom and defends his right to be a normal kid against her clinginess. That surprised me, in a good way. Norma is a fierce protective mama lion, and one hell of a survivor. I want to hate her, but I can’t. And Norman is outright loveable.

I wish there had been some warning of the triggery violent scene.

Here’s what I will say absolutely– the show has a voice. I’m not sure what this show wants to be yet, but it is– it is quite sure. There is a beautiful background tapestry of old-timeyness; an infusion of innocence, emotional disconnection and good old American determination that feels like the 1950s. Poetic license = granted. Also, it’s creepy as fuck.

The first time you see the house it is chilling.

I will permit myself to remain intrigued and watch at least a few more episodes. The production values, and the acting, are stellar.


  3 Responses to “Pilot: Bates Motel, First You Dream, Then You Die”

  1. Great article, Roberta! I too recall finding everyday things magical in my childhood. And any new reboot of something I recall from my youth always intrigues me. Now, I didn’t see “Psycho” until about 20 years ago (it took me a bit of courage to watch it the first time), but once I saw it, I really appreciated it for it’s edginess at that time, and it’s truly disturbing suspense. (The final scene where Perkins stares maliciously into the camera still chills me to the bone). I also know that now all remakes can’t be as good as the original (there was an awful movie remake of Psycho a few years ago that was totally unnecessary), but from what I’ve read of this TV prequel, it looks pretty promising, I’ll have to check it out.
    Also, I went to see Oz, The Great and Powerful last weekend and it wasn’t perfect, but it was enjoyable enough that I want to see it again. I also can’t wait for the second movie in the excellently rebooted Star Trek franchise by J.J. Abrams. Thanks for this review.

  2. I think Bates Motel has possibilities. The pilot episode had some of the most intense moments I’ve seen on basic cable since – well – Breaking Bad.

    For as long as I can remember, my mind-set has always been about the inquiry/conversation: “Why people are the way they are and how they got to be that way,” so this show is right up my alley.

  3. I urge you or Deborah to watch Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel (sister channel to AMC) and review it if it intrigues you. It’s far, far better than Bates Motel, although I agree this has a few things to recommend. TotL is available in HD (and SD) On Demand.

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