Review: Bates Motel (A&E) 1×1

Psycho - the prequel

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, A&E

Psycho was of course Alfred (and Alma) Hitchock’s greatest triumph, a 1960 horror masterpiece that has become embedded in popular culture. It sees Janet Leigh steal money from employer and run away with the swag. Unfortunately, along the way she stops at ‘the Bates Motel’, where despite being a big star of the time, she’s murdered in an iconic shower scene by the mother of the motel’s owner, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) – it’s a trick Scream repeated several decades later.  

Eventually (spoiler alert), it’s discovered that the disturbed, schizoid Bates has been murdering women in the motel while dressed as his mother, believing that his actually deceased mother wouldn’t like his being sexually attracted to the women in question. I say spoiler alert, but pretty much everyone knows this much already. 

So powerful a movie is it that as well as the Bates Motel being preserved by the studios, there were two sequels made in the 80s, with Perkins reprising his role as Bates.

There’s even been a movie this year about its making. It’s got Scarlett Johansson in it. You should watch it.

Now along comes Bates Motel, a prequel starring the marvellous award-winning actress-director Vera Farmiga (returning to TV nine years almost to the day since my beloved Touching Evil debuted) as the still-living Mrs Bates and Freddie Highmore (Charlie Bucket from the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as the still-teenage Norman. It attempts to explore what could have made Norman into such a fruit-cake in his later years.

What’s interesting is that the show attempts to emulate Psycho with a completely different twist shortly after the beginning of the first episode, one I really didn’t see coming. And just like the original, it takes about half an hour before anything at all happens, so you’ve really got to stick with it to get to the good stuff.

And so far, do we have an explanation for Norman’s craziness? We do. And, for the sake of avoiding all spoilers until after the jump, I’ll just say it rhymes with ‘anger’. Here’s a trailer that does, unfortunately, spoil the twist.


“Bates Motel,” serves as a contemporary prequel to the genre-defining film, “Psycho,” and promises to give viewers an intimate portrayal of how Norman Bates’ psyche unravels through his teenage years.

Fans will have access to the dark, twisted backstory and learn first hand just how deeply intricate his relationship with his mother, Norma, truly is and how she helped forge the most famous serial killer of them all.

“Bates Motel” is produced by Universal Television for A&E Network. Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) serve as executive producers for Carlton Cuse Productions.

Is it any good?
Well, if you like scenes of rape and torture, then it’s aces. For everyone else, particularly fans of the original movie, I’d not so much say ‘Stay well clear,’ as ‘Ignore’, because it’s eminently ignorable.

First, here’s the twist – it’s set in the modern day. I’m assuming it’s supposed to be a twist, despite the give-away trailer, because for five minutes, everything looks like it’s set in the late 50s to early 60s: the fashions, the cars, the set design – everything. And then we see young Norman listening to music on his iPhone and all becomes clear. Okay, it’s an iPhone 3GS, not a 5, but that’s as period as it gets.

As mentioned, for the first half hour, nothing happens. We see Norman and Mommy Dearest move into the Bates Motel, which still looks exactly like it did/will do in Psycho, right down to all the pictures of the birds. Mom is a bit controlling, but generally fine; Norman loves his mom but in not an especially creepy way, apart from always calling her, ‘Mother.’ 

When some high school girls give Norman a lift, mom’s a little wary of them and pulls the excuse that Norman’s too busy helping her renovate the hotel to spend time with their sort.

So far, so ordinary. So, ‘Really?’

But in classic Psycho style, things then kick off and before you can say, ‘Mother, what have you done?’, there’s a dead body to hide. The rest of the episode is then about this cover up.

And again, it’s a bit of a case of ‘And?’ because although we get to meet the sheriff in town, Anthony Perkins-lookalike Nestor Carbonell from Lost (the exec producer of which, Carlton Cuse, is exec producer on this), there’s nothing especially defining or that links the show to the original movie. Yes, it’s Norman and his mother. Yes, it’s Norman’s teenage years, but it’s pretty much all in name- and set-only. Undisturbed Norman isn’t especially interesting to watch and despite Farmiga’s sterling efforts, there’s nothing that makes you think Norman’s going to grow up with multiple personality disorder and homicidal tendencies as a result of her parenting style. And without the period setting, the series is neither a proper prequel to the movie nor unique enough to attract attention from the casual viewer. 

Instead, we’re given the suggestion that Norman is going to turn to the darkside because of a pencil-sketched bit of manga torture porn that he finds in one of the rooms. While that stuff is pretty creepy, the idea that it would produce Norman is somewhat implausible.

All that leaves is the end scene as a possible get out and lure: the final image (no spoiler) suggests either that we’re going to get Lostian flashforwards to the older Norman’s terrible crimes – in a considerably more graphic manner than Hitchcock was ever allowed or would probably want to do – or whoever owned/created that manga is putting it all into practice.

That’s all quite nasty, as is the violent but fortunately coy rape scene in the middle of the episode. And if nasty, knowing horror is your game – and A&E is presumably trying to cash in on the success of American Horror Story with Bates Motel – then the show looks like it should please. It’s not brilliant – it contains lines like “You’re like a cool lake in the mountains” – it’s not especially insightful, faithful to the original or innovative. But it has Vera Farmiga, a couple of decent characters, a great look and a reasonable number of tense moments.It also has the potential build into something better.

You’ve just got to enjoy women being raped and tortured at the same time. But then, to a certain extent, that was true of the original. 


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.