Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) move to White Pine Bay, Oregon after the death of Norman’s father. Norma purchases a run-down motel which she plans to renovate and re-open with the help of Norman. Quickly the mother and son get dragged into the seedy underworld of their new hometown and the arrival of Norman’s half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) brings more drama to their door. Norman befriends classmate Emma (Olivia Cooke) who quickly falls for him whilst he has his eye on popular girl Bradley (Nicola Peltz). As Norman and Norma adjust to their new life, the soon find themselves in the line of fire with Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) when the motel’s previous owner disappears.
Bates Motel is one of those shows that could have gone horribly wrong. Touching anything to do with the original Psycho story, written by Robert Bloch and brought to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock, is always going to be a difficult task. When we heard the show was set in the present day and bits of the mythology had been changed we were sceptical to say the least. Thankfully Bates Motel manages to avoid all of the pitfalls it could have so easily fallen into and establishes itself as a fantastic interpretation of Norman Bates’ younger years.
The show mixes the modern world with the world that we are familiar with from the previous movies. It’s almost as if Norman and Norma live in their own world and they look old-fashioned as if they have been lifted from the 60s. We’re relieved that Norman doesn’t spend his days on an Xbox or playing on his iPad. The update to the modern world is barely noticeable and that is one of the things that definitely works in the show’s favour.
Aside from focusing on the complex relationship between Norman and Norma, Bates Motel establishes its own storylines away from the dynamic. Two of the big ones are Dylan’s job working for local drug lords and Norman and Emma’s discovery of a journal depicting women being tortured which leads to an intriguing and shocking storyline later in the season. Alongside those Norma also gets a chance to be a normal single mother by embarking on a relationship with Sheriff Zack Shelby (Mike Vogel).
Whilst undoubtedly Norman plays a big role in Bates Motel, the show is really the story of Norma Bates, played expertly by Vera Farmiga, and gives us the first proper look at what she was really like. In the original Psycho films, Norma only appeared on screen once when Olivia Hussey played her in Psycho IV: The Beginning. That depiction of Norma didn’t ring true at all with what we knew about the character so it’s fantastic to see Farmiga really embody the woman that was at the root of all of Norman’s problems. In Bates Motel Norma is seen as an emotionally manipulative woman who will do whatever it takes to protect herself and her family. She keeps Norman under her thumb switching between loving and abusive depending on what she needs to achieve.
Norma isn’t a completely unsympathetic character though as Farmiga brings some of her vulnerability to the fore. On the surface, and to most of the town, she’s a single mother doing her best to run a business and raise a child. Farmiga’s performance is nothing short of astonishing and she deserves every award and piece of critical-acclaim that is directed her way.
Freddie Highmore is a revelation as Norman Bates. We remember him as the kid from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake but here he reinvents himself as a serious and credible actor. Following Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman is no easy task but Highmore acquits himself well. He captures Norman’s awkwardness and his chemistry with Farmiga is believable. He surprised us most in the show’s darker moments and showcases a versatility we had no idea he had as an actor.
Also worthy of note in the show are Max Thieriot, Mike Vogel, Nestor Carbonell and Emma Cooke. The four actors provide strong support for Farmiga and Highmore with Thieriot bringing both eye candy and trouble as Dylan. He antagonises both Norman and Norman whilst taking advantage of being part of their family. His character really grows over the season and Thieriot ensures that Dylan is more than just a stereotypical bad boy. Vogel and Carbonell are convincing as the town’s Sheriffs and it’s uncanny how much Carbonell actually looks like Anthony Perkins. Vogel gets more screentime as Norma’s love interest and he gets his teeth into what could have been a forgettable role. Lastly Cooke brings conscience and emotion to the show as the girl Norman really should fall in love with. Her character Emma suffers from cystic fibrosis and it’s touching how she tries to make Norman notice her.
Extras on the release include deleted scenes and a Paley Center featurette showing a discussion with the cast and creative team.
Bates Motel is a surprising and addictive show that manages to establish its own path in a well-trodden mythology. The show has been renewed for a second season and is due to air in the UK in the coming months. We can’t wait to see what direction the show goes in after the gripping season 1 finale. Mixing horror with drama and a whole lot of mystery, Bates Motel has managed to do the impossible and reinvent two of horror’s most iconic characters.