How has it taken me this long to get around to writing about Bates Motel? It’s one of my favorite shows on TV right now. Bates Motel is a prequel to the events of the movie Psycho, focusing on Norman Bates’ life as a teenager and his relationship with his mother.
The series begins shortly after the death of Norman’s father, an incident that is just one of many deeply difficult and traumatic events in the life of Norma Bates. Eager to start a new life, Norma buys a hotel in White Pine Bay, Oregon and moves there with Norman. However, their new life isn’t quite what Norma had hoped it would be. She’s assaulted by someone from the family who originally owned the house and hotel, she finds out the city is planning to build a bypass that will take away a lot of the road traffic away from the hotel, and she discovers her hotel has a history of being used for shady means.
In fact, the entire town of White Pine Bay is hardly the quaint small town she had been hoping to live in. The town is built around the drug industry and other criminal rackets, which Norma’s other son Dylan gets involved with when he comes to town. Dylan isn’t nearly as close to Norma as Norman is, which Dylan resents, but he ultimately cares about his brother.
Meanwhile, Norman tries to adjust to life at his new high school. Fitting in isn’t easy for him, but he makes friends with fellow student Emma, who is dealing with cystic fibrosis. Emma has a crush on Norman and develops a friendship with Norma. However, Norman has a misguided, unrequited crush on Bradley, a much more popular girl in school. In addition to his highly-sheltered upbringing, Norman is also experiencing unusual blackouts and Norma is struggling to understand what’s going on with him while trying to protect him from himself and from the outside world.
On the whole, if you’re a fan of Psycho, Bates Motel is well worth checking out on Netflix. When the series was announced, I felt like the series had the potential to be good and fortunately, I was not disappointed. Like most TV series, it has its stronger and its weaker seasons. Season 1 was great, I wasn’t as impressed by season 2, and season 3 was a little bit of a return to form. But even the weaker seasons are worth sticking with because it all builds up to season 4, which is currently airing on A&E. By season 4, it’s very clear that Norman is more deeply troubled than Norma can handle and every episode so far has been really, really good.
Although the movie Psycho was released in 1960, Bates Motel is set in the modern day. However, there is a lot of very retro flair to the series that almost makes it seem like it’s only this quasi-modern day setting. The characters in the show use smartphones and the internet, but then there’s Norman’s teacher who has a very vintage-looking style and Norma doesn’t drive a particularly ultra-modern car. The time it takes place in is just one of the differences between the movie and the show. The Bates Motel was located in Arizona in the movie, but it’s in Oregon in the TV show. Those differences don’t really detract from the show, though.
Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore are both fantastic as Norma and Norman. Farmiga is particularly amazing and it amazes me that she doesn’t get more recognition at awards. She makes you want to root for Norma, she simultaneously makes you very frustrated by her, but she also has some great comedy moments in there, too. And Highmore is definitely up for the challenge of taking a very well-known character portrayed by a very iconic actor and making it his own. He channels just the right amount of Anthony Perkins’ performance, but he does a great job of making it a sort of less-evolved version of the character. As the series progresses, his performance has only gotten stronger.
In addition to being a prequel to the events of Psycho, Bates Motel is very frequently compared to Twin Peaks. I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan and there is a very distinct influence there, but Bates Motel stands up very well on its own. They’re both set in small towns where nothing is what it seems, but it’s not like Norman is having dreams about being a room with red curtains and a black and white floor. Twin Peaks has a lot of supernatural and paranormal themes, but Bates Motel deals more with psychological issues and crime stories.
The hardest thing about watching Bates Motel is that it has many great characters and the show really makes you like them and sympathize with them. But since we know what happens in Psycho, we know that inevitably, none of these characters are going to have a happy ending.