Bates Motel Episode 1.1 “First You Dream, Then You Die” (Reviewed by Lisa Marie Bowman)

When I was in high school, I once wrote a short story for my creative writing class.  The story was basically about me and my friends shopping at the mall and it was full of quirky observations and funny dialogue.  I had a lot of fun writing it and, when I read it aloud, both the class and my teacher seemed to enjoy it.

However, when I got my paper back, I discovered that I had only gotten a B for my efforts.  At the top of the first page of my story, in bold red ink, my teacher had written: “As usual, you’re very observant and detailed.  However, I get the feeling that you mostly write to amuse yourself.  Why should anyone care about this story?”

At the time, I felt my teacher was being very unfair and I’m still not very happy about that comment.  Why should anyone care?  I thought.  Because I wrote it, that’s why!  However, as time has gone by, I’ve come to see (if not necessarily agree with) her point.  “Why should anyone care?” is the question that critics ask themselves every time they start a review.

“Why should anyone care?” is also the question that I asked myself every time I saw a commercial for Bates Motel on A&E.

The commercials promised that Bates Motel would be a prequel to one of the most memorable films ever made, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  And while they were undeniably effective and occasionally disturbing, I still found myself wondering why anyone should care?  We all already know what Norman Bates is going to eventually become so is there really a need for a prequel to give us the exact details of how it happened?

In other words: Why should anyone care?

That’s the question that Bates Motel attempted to answer last night with its premiere episode.  It didn’t quite succeed.  As well-made as the episode was, Bates Motel exists in the long shadow of Psycho and one reason why Psycho remains a classic is because, storywise, it told us everything that we needed to know.  As a result of Anthony Perkins’s iconic lead performance, we ended that film feeling that we knew everything that we needed to know about both Norman Bates and how he became what he became.  The question for Bates Motel — even more than “Why should we care?” — is whether or not the show has anything new to tell us.

So far, it’s still too early to tell but I do hope that Bates Motel does find a reason for us to care because, if it does, it has the potential to be an entertaining and effective little show.

Last night’s episode started with teenage Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) finding his father’s dead body.  When he informs his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), she doesn’t seem to be all that concerned.  In fact, the attentive observer might have even noticed a small smile on Norma’s lips.

6 months later, Norman and his extremely overprotective mother are moving to a new town.  Norma’s bought a run-down motel and she says that this will be the perfect way for her and Norman to start a new life.  However, the motel’s former owner disagrees and, when he attempts to rape Norma, he ends up getting stabbed to death and dumped in a bathtub.

Meanwhile, Norman is struggling to adapt to his new life.  During his first day of school, he manages to befriend four high school girls who, needless to say, are not approved of  by his mother.  Norman sneaks out of the house to go to a party but, like a good son, he still helps his mom dispose of a dead body.  He also manages to find a crudely illustrated BDSM booklet underneath the carpet in one of the motel rooms.  Hmmmm….that’s probably not going to turn out well…

There were some promising signs for the future to be found last night.  The entire episode had an undeniably creepy, off-center feel to it.  When the commercials leading up to the premiere first started to air, I was somewhat put off by the sight of Norman Bates listening to an iPod.  As I put it on twitter, “If Norman Bates was in his 30s in 1960, then how did he own an iPod when he was a teenager?”  However, after seeing last night’s episode, I saw that the show’s creators were actually being very clever in how they mixed modern technology (like that iPod) with various retro details.  This is the type of show where people get text messages while watching flickering black-and-white televisions and it gave this episode a timeless and, at times, rather surreal feel.

Another big plus was that, about halfway through the episode, Nestor Carbonell showed up.  In Bates Motel, Carbonell plays Sheriff Andy Romero.  He shows up to investigate the new owners of the motel, asks Norma a few insinuating questions, and then proceeds to take the world’s longest (and loudest) piss without once noticing that he’s standing next to a dead body.  Carbonell’s pretty much playing the same role that he played in last season’s Ringer but no matter.  Nestor Carbonell elevates anything that he’s involved with.

Freddie Highmore made for a sympathetic Norman and, perhaps most importantly, you can look at him and imagine him growing up to be Anthony Perkins.  However, not surprisingly, last night’s episode was dominated by Vera Farmiga.  Playing Norma as a character who is both sympathetic and frightening, Farmiga finds the perfect pitch for her performance.  Farmiga is brave enough to occasionally go over-the-top but she’s also a skilled enough actress that she never allows Norma to be anything less than credible.

In the end, both Norman and Norma are monsters that you can believe in and, for that reason, I’ll be interested to see what Bates Motel does with them over the next few episodes.

Random Observations:

  • That final scene was tres creepy, no?
  • Tonight’s episode was directed Tucker Gates, who previously directed episodes of Lost and Alias.
  • Vera Farmiga seriously kicks so much ass!  I hope that, when I grow up, I’m just like her.
  • Ever since I first saw him on Lost, I’ve loved Nestor Carbonell.  I wasn’t that enthusiastic about The Dark Knight Rises but I smiled when he showed up and then I shed a tear when his character was blown up.
  • When Norman went to that party with his new friends, I tweeted, “OMG, Norman’s trapped in a Harmony Korine movie!”
  • Despite having mixed feelings about whether or not the show is really all that necessary, I’m still looking forward to watching and reviewing the next few episodes of Bates Motel.  I’m just hoping that the show doesn’t devolve into a “murder-a-week” format.
  • Speaking of which, who do you think will be the first character to be menaced while taking a shower?  Because you so know it’s going to happen…

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