Of the various grotesqueries that Bates Motel offers for our delectation, such as a surprisingly frank depiction of rape, a gory stabbing, a beaten and imprisoned Chinese teenage sex slave, and several portensions of blossoming madness, the most disturbing image, hands down, shows a young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) fiddling with an iPhone as he prepares for his first day at a new school. Yes, Bates Motel, which obviously takes its title from the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is a contemporary rethink of Norman’s unorthodox relationship with his manipulative, possibly deranged mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga).
The series appears to be a victim of marketing stratagems. Sure, Psycho> carries the “brand recognition” that studios appear to value above any and all common sense, but can viewers belonging to the all-important 18-to-30ish age quadrant be reasonably expected to tune in to a series inspired by a film from the 1960s? Executive producer Carlton Cuse (Lost) has called Bates Motel a “contemporary prequel” to Psycho, which is an evasive way of saying the show runners have borrowed the elements from the film that suit them with little regard as to whether they logically belong in a contemporary setting that’s otherwise informed by the most successful shows of the last 20 years.
Unsurprisingly, given this opportunistic grab-bag approach, Bates Motel exhibits virtually no feel for time or place. Norman, though a contemporary teen, still dresses in the priggish 1950s mode—all hiked-up trousers, plaid button-ups, and hand-me-down sweaters—that we associate with the Norman who once fatefully encountered Marion Crane. That could potentially make sense thematically, as Norman is meant to be a creature of another time, but occasionally we see teachers distractingly dressed as conservative school marms, while Norman’s bad-boy brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), broods in tailored, fussed-over duds that wouldn’t be out of place in the contemporary incarnation of 90210. Norma’s behavior is the least consistent, as she continually wafts back and forth between Norman and Dylan’s conflicting fashion senses: Occasionally she’s the oppressive asexual matriarch the film implied her to be, but she’s also capable of morphing into a sexy, chic, leather jacket-clad vamp when it occurs to the producers that a little cheesecake might be in order.
These distracting anachronisms nurture an odd, ever-shifting tone that’s often ghoulish for reasons that appear to be mostly unintended. Most of us know the future that could await Norman and Norma, and while the show’s creators have suggested that Bates Motel might not adhere at all to the reality of the original film, they still occasionally foreshadow the film’s conclusion in order to imbue scenes with a gravity they haven’t earned on their own. We’re encouraged to wonder about Norman’s potential future as a madman, while simultaneously following him as he navigates the comparatively banal pitfalls of being a regular teen, such as braving his first kegger or befriending his first hottie (for some reason the girls, who also sport a very 21st-century sensibility, can’t get enough of Norman; even his English teacher shoots him “do me” vibes). Bates Motel often suggests what Gilmore Girls would’ve been like if it arbitrarily featured a tormented young Charles Manson buying a car or studying for an English test among its moments of perky pop banter.
Bates Motel is ultimately so disappointing for the simple reason that it really has nothing to do with even a revisionist version of the Bates Motel; the Psycho iconography has been used to spruce up a derivative mystery series that appears to be evolving into a teen-centric combination of Twin Peaks and Lost that will probably follow Norman as he discovers the dirty underbelly of his new town. That conceit isn’t inherently unpromising, but Cuse and his collaborators can’t commit to a singular sensibility that might seduce us into following Norman down the rabbit hole of madness. Bates Motel, admittedly, isn’t dull, and there are moments, such as the cliffhanger that concludes the third episode, that suggest the lurid, melodramatic camp classic it could have been and might eventually be. Greater offenses have been committed in the name of Psycho, such as the regrettable Psycho III, but this series might be less forgivable for the egregiously pandering waste of talent and potential on display.