Bates Motel, Ep. 1.01: “First You Dream, Then You Die” feels like a cross between Lynch and Hitch

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Bates Motel, Season 1, Episode 1: “First You Dream, Then You Die”
Written by Anthony Cipriano
Directed by Tucker Gates
Airs Mondays at 10pm ET on A&E

In 1987, a year after the second Psycho sequel hit the big screen, Universal looked to take the franchise to television by turning it into a weekly anthology series. This was not unusual for the time as the late 80s and early 90s churned out an abundance of horror related shows such as Freddy’s Nightmares and Friday the 13th. A television spin-off of Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, titled Bates Motel, originally aired as a pilot but due to low ratings, producers shelved the idea. In early 2012, A&E announced that a new TV series also titled Bates Motel was in development; later on it was confirmed that the show was picked up for a 10 episode first season. However, it has nothing to do with the failed 1987 TV pilot. More surprisingly, Bates Motel (2013) isn’t connected to the Hitchcock timeline. In fact the series transports the tale to a contemporary setting. In hindsight, the task of successfully building a satisfying series around Psycho appears hopeless, especially since audiences already know the future of both Norman and Norma Bates. And this is the biggest hurdle producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), need to surpass.

The connection to Psycho is clearly the drawing card. The series is easier to market if most people are already familiar with the characters involved. But that doesn’t mean it will be an easy task. Sustaining an ongoing franchise around the making of a monster still comes with risks. Lately TV audiences have demonstrated a taste for horror with the success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, but this is a different beast. Bates Motel most resembles Twin Peaks. Expect a slow start, as the first few episodes establish character and location, before things really start to pick up. But there’s more than enough intrigue and entertainment on display, and the combined talents of the executive producers give us hope that they know what they are doing and more importantly, know where the series is heading long-term. Skeptics and cynics will automatically dismiss Bates Motel as nothing but a Hollywood cash grab, and the biggest challenge of the show itself, is to respect the film’s iconic status while creating a story that meets today’s basic cable criteria. Give them credit for taking on such a difficult task.

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If you’re going into Bates Motel having seen Psycho,  you’re bound to enjoy it more than those not familiar with 1960 classic – but you only need a basic knowledge of the film to appreciate the similarities. Bates Motel is packed with throwbacks to the iconic film including a shower scene, a taxidermist, the iconic Gothic house sitting on top of a hill, and yes, the abandoned motel is one and the same. The pilot even opens with Norman declaring his love for old black and white movies, and Norma’s wardrobe recalls the era of the original. And if you are well-versed in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, fear not; the series takes the infamous Bates family in intriguing new directions. Hitchcock aficionados might know how it all ends, but we know little about Norma, a character who is long dead when we first meet her in Psycho. Norma appears in the climax in the final twist, but she also leaves many questions unanswered, which Hitchcock himself tries to address in the film’s final minutes. The questions we should be asking here, is not who Norman is, but rather who Norma is, and what did she do to drive her son to such Freudian homicidal tendencies. The creators are calling this a “contemporary prequel” – a label that allows them up to tell new stories and take liberties with what we already know. So the best way to approach Bates Motel is to think of it as a parallel universe in which the characters share similar characteristics but their walk in life may venture off in new directions.

In Norma and Norman they have created two enthralling characters, and Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga are the main reason to watch this show. Their complex relationship makes for compelling television and the ongoing success of the series will depend on what the writers do with these two individuals. There is no need to worry about performance here; Farmiga is great as the overbearing, nearly incestuous and possessive mother, and Highmore is perfectly cast as her 17-year-old, awkward, yet cautiously hopeful son. TV has no shortage of antiheroes, but portraying the notorious Norman Bates is an extremely difficult balancing act. Thankfully, the adorable Highmore is up to the task. The challenge is to begin digging to the core of the mother-son relationship and making us understand what makes them tick. Highmore’s innate likability makes Norman seem like he wouldn’t even hurt a fly – and in a way, the innocent, fresh-faced Norman works against the Bates we know from Psycho – thus making the road to his his inevitable fate questionable. This may be a prequel, but the root of Norman’s psychological troubles are already planted long before the episode begins, leaving us to wonder whether or not his mother is fully responsible for his later murderous traits. On the most basic level, the series is designed to explore how Norman’s psyche unravels during his formative years, but the pilot also hints at a dark undercurrent plaguing the small town – which brings us back the aforementioned comparison to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Bates Motel relies on traditional notions of small town America but something sinister seems embedded deep within. Every character introduced seems a little odd, leaving viewers wondering whether the Bates family might actually be the most normal citizens in the town. In short, the setting acts as a metaphor or outward manifestation of Norman Bates. What probes beneath the cheerful surface of this picture-perfect small town is sadomasochistic violence, corruption, abuse, crime and perversion.

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Bates Motel wastes little time in shedding blood – the pilot opens with the supposedly accidental death of Norman’s father, leading to Norma’s decision to move away to the coastal Northern California town of White Pine Bay. But seeking out a fresh start ins’t so easy for the Bates family. We discover in the pilot that the motel carries its share of secrets, and an equally emotionally and physically disturbing brutal rape scene culminates with mother and son disposing of a dead body. “First You Dream, Then You Die” has its share of problems – and enough plot points to fill a full length feature film. Adding to the mystery is Norman’s older half-brother named Dylan (Max Thieriot), and a flock of high school girls who become strangely intrigued with Norman without rhyme or reason. Everything seems too convenient and the writers seem hellbent on overstuffing the story with too much too soon. But underneath it all, you have an incredibly promising show which introduces a new vision for these iconic characters. There is enough nuance in both Highmore’s and Farmiga’s portrayals to overlook some minor missteps. If Bates Motel remains as engaging as these two richly drawn, ominous creatures, it is sure to be a runaway success.

– Ricky D

Other Thoughts:

I’m a big fan of Emma (Olivia Cooke), the girl with cystic fibrosis who seems to find in Norman a kindred spirit.

A nice touch adding a manga book to the mystery.

I love the extensive use of wide angles and the first appearance of the creepy old house.

The soundtracks features a nice mix of old and new tunes. I especially love the use of Rolling Stones, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Radiohead.

I never thought of Norman has having any sibling. I can’t wait to see Dylan.

Norman: “I think people that are different don’t know they are different because they have nothing to compare it to.”

I’m surprised A&E allowed that rape scene to go on as long as it did.






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