If you’ve ever wondered how Norman Bates and his mother spent their days before he cut up Marion Crane, Bates Motel has your answer: They went out for musicals. In “Shadow of a Doubt,” the excellent second episode of the A&E drama’s sophomore season, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) goads her stringy, teenaged son (Freddie Highmore) into auditioning for a local production of South Pacific, her voice lofted to a childlike whine. “You’re just getting so grown up,” she says, rubbing his shoulders. “And I wanna be close.” As you might expect, though, it’s Norma who lays claim to the star turn, and Farmiga’s nervy, a cappella rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “Maybe This Time” transforms the Cabaret love song into a strange and strangely moving warning against helicopter parenting. “Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky,” she warbles. “Maybe this time he’ll stay.”
Mama Bates’s jingle-jangle ballad represents the Psycho prequel at its deranged, discomfiting best. Norma and Norman’s mercurial relationship propels Bates Motel with queasy abandon. Their frequent, dizzyingly pitched battles cycle through pleas, sobs, rages, and apologies so fast that Freud’s head would spin, but even the quieter moments—harmonizing “Mr. Sandman” by the piano, for instance—simmer with Oedipal dysfunction. Though nothing here matches last season’s skin-crawling “Ocean View,” in which a wrathful Norma repeatedly screamed, “You went out and you got laid!,” you still couldn’t pay me to watch Bates Motel with my mother, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Like the famed movie villain it reimagines, however, Bates Motel suffers from a split personality. Part family drama and part village potboiler, sprinkled with funky Hitchcockian nostalgia, the series is littered with discarded subplots. In the first season, which transported the Bates family from the midcentury California of the source material to the fictional present-day hamlet of White Pine Bay, Oregon, Norma and Norman purchased the motel, began renovations—and, oh yeah, found themselves embroiled in the shady dealings of sex traffickers and drug kingpins. Doesn’t your hometown hang its burning corpses in the main square?
Season two picks up a few of these threads and tosses in a fistful of additional wrinkles. Four months after Norman blacked out in his English teacher’s house and she turned up dead, it’s summer on the Pacific and business at the Bates Motel is booming. His classmate and onetime lover, Bradley (Nicola Peltz), sets out to exact revenge for her father’s murder; Emma (Olivia Cooke) gets stoned on a pot cupcake; and Norma’s brother, Caleb (Kenny Johnson), arrives unexpectedly. Nerves fray. Revelations fly. None of it matters. It’s deadly boring and performed with only passing interest, all the more ordinary for trading in such lurid currency. For long stretches, it’s easy to dismiss Bates Motel as just another teen melodrama, lazily introducing twists to juice up the narrative and then allowing each one to peter out unfulfilled.
The dilemma facing any prequel, sequel, reboot, or spinoff is in determining how near the original to plant its flag. Hewing too close risks unfriendly comparisons, while straying too far suggests an empty premise, concocted to capitalize on the moneymaking potential of preexisting material. Bates Motel unsuccessfully tackles this problem—heightened by the iconic status of Hitchcock’s classic—with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to storytelling that drags the focus away from the one relationship worth watching. Indeed, much of the credit for the show’s kooky appeal falls solely to Farmiga. In the season premiere, her blond hair, blue eyes, and gray suit recall the chilly heroines of Hitchcock’s heyday, but the prickly jeremiad she unleashes at a city council meeting is anything but Kim Novak demure. “Welcome to the world, ladies!” she inveighs against a proposed book ban. “There are ax murderers and whores stuffed under every rug, so your kids better read up on it and get educated, because that’s what life is!” Farmiga delights in the high camp without losing sight of the fact that Norma, besieged by violent men, tries to protect her son, and herself, by pretending she’s in control. In fact, she’s a wounded animal, as dangerous as she is desperate, and clutching Norman tighter will only plunge him deeper into madness. We already know how this story ends.
What’s intermittently electric about Bates Motel is that Norma and Norman don’t. Highmore channels Anthony Perkins’s uncanny, alien fragility (he’s the line to Farmiga’s circle), but Norman still squirms in his mother’s grip. Nor has Mrs. Bates yet hardened into the puritanical shrew whose shriveled remains turn up in the last act of Psycho. It’s this understanding that the script is still unwritten which lends Norma’s take on “Maybe This Time” such curious pathos. “It’s got to happen, happen sometime,” the lyrics promise. “Maybe this time I’ll win.” When it directs its crazed energy at imagining all the ways Norman Bates and his mother will end up losing, Bates Motel sings. The rest is noise.