A&E’s drama “Bates Motel” is, at least in theory, a prequel to the classic 1960 film “Psycho.” It’s centered around the creaky motel of the title with the iconic house looming behind it, and it has for a main character a sweet but troubled teenage boy named Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) whose close relationship with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) is more than a little complicated. It build out backstory that’s only hinted at in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, filling in Norma’s past romantic entanglements and introducing an older brother to Norman, the brooding Dylan (Max Thieriot).
But “Bates Motel” won’t ever meet up with the film that inspired it — it can’t. The TV series, developed by “Lost” executive producer Carlton Cuse, “Friday Night Lights” writer Kerry Ehrin and Anthony Cipriano, is set in the present day, a world of cell phones, manga-reading high schoolers and a regional drug economy that various members of the Bates family stumbled onto in last night’s episode, “Nice Town You Picked, Norma…” Beyond that, it’s deliberately made so the ends won’t match up — for instance, it’s set in the coastal Oregon location of White Pine Bay, not the California one of Fairvale. And, as Cuse said to journalists at TCA, even if the series is successful enough to run for years, audiences shouldn’t expect Marion Crane to eventually come driving down the road toting thousands of dollars in stolen cash.
All this means that the relationship “Bates Motel” has with its source material is more tenuous, but also more interesting in many way than a straightforward prequel meant to slot in with what’s already been provided on the big screen — mythology that was elaborated on in three feature sequels and one unsuccessful 1987 TV pilot, also called “Bates Motel,” all of which the A&E series ignores. Instead, “Bates Motel” uses our awareness of what’s happened to Norman and Norma in the film for a kind of dramatic irony — our knowledge that someday Norman will kill Norma and then attempt to preserve her physically and in his mind shades all of the interactions on screen, particularly those between mother and son, or between the two brothers, who had a skirmish over their parent in Monday’s installment. “You don’t get it, do you, Norman — she’s ruined you,” Dylan spat at his younger sibling.
As a standalone series, “Bates Motel” has its ups and downs — it takes the pop psychology of the “Psycho” ending very seriously, even as it crosses into territory with potential for camp, and the intrigues around the town have so far been fairly standard if sometimes brutal stuff. But the ties to “Psycho” give the series an inarguable heft even when its concerns are with things completely unrelated to the film — these people, we know, are doomed, their dark destiny already set. This is particularly true for Farmiga’s Norma, who’s part Madonna and part monster, her maternal love at turns nurturing and stifling.
Farmiga had a noteworthy scene in last night’s episode in which she quizzed Norman’s school project partner Emma (Olivia Cooke), who has cystic fibrosis. We’d already seen Norma shoo away some of the other girls who’ve perhaps inexplicably instantly latched onto her son, but Emma she seems to see as less of a threat. She does ask the girl, with a smile and fantastic cruelty, what her life expectancy is — 27, it turns out, meaning that even if she managed or wanted to pry Norman out of his mother’s grasp, she wouldn’t be around to hold on to him for all that long.
Prequel status in TV tends to take on a different meaning than it does in the movies. A film, with a set ending, can lead the audience right up to the point where the first feature ended. But a prequel series has more vague connections to the original story it’s meant to precede — and its length is usually uncertain, meaning that it need be in no hurry to speed up to that point. Instead, our assumed knowledge of that material is used to inform events in the show and usually lends it a certain bittersweetness. The friendship that forms between teenage Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and maligned rich kid Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) in “Smallville” is colored by our awareness that they’re future archenemies. The teeming world in which “Caprica” was set was overshadowed by our sense of the approaching apocalypse that led to “Battlestar Galactica.”
Even if we never see it happen, we know that what unfolds in “Bates Motel” is meant to explain how an adult Norman Bates ends up leading a lonely, stunted and murderous life — and our understand of that, hopefully, yields a deeper connection to the character as a boy. And maybe it’s the power that foreknowledge can have that’s led to our current mini trend of prequel series — “The Carrie Diaries,” which looks at a young Carrie Bradshaw long before “Sex and the City,” when she’s a Connecticut 16-year-old dreaming of Manhattan, and the upcoming “Hannibal,” which centers on FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) long before the latter is revealed as the serial killer who will haunt the former’s career and life. Have the lambs stopped screaming? Not yet, but it’s all about knowing that it’s coming.