“Who’s gonna rent a room in the rape/murder hotel?” smokin’ hot Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) rhetorically asks her introverted son Norman (Freddie Highmore) after a grizzly scene has just unfolded in their creaky house. Based on the first episode of “Bates Motel,” which was unveiled March 11 at SXSW, a number of clunkily-drawn characters will probably swing by the infamous rest-stop, less in the service of true creepiness and more for generic thrills.
The A&E series premieres on March 18 (iTunes preview here), and is produced and written in part by Carlton Cuse of “Lost” and Anthony Cipriano. It is a modern-day backstory of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” killer, cross-dresser and troubled soul Norman Bates. After 17-year-old Norman finds his father dead in their family’s basement from a mysterious cause, he and Mother — suspiciously unphased by the discovery of her husband’s lifeless body — relocate to the remote Seafarer Motel, an abandoned property they purchase, rechristen Bates and intend to spruce up as a highway hotel.
Trouble brews when a piggish local man accuses them of taking his family’s property, seized by the bank. Meanwhile, lanky Norman suffers some growing pains when a cadre of his high school’s most beautiful babes all take a shine to him, but Mother Norma insists he must stay home and help renovate the new real estate.
As this is Mrs. Bates we’re talking about, her possessiveness has a distinct whiff of psychosexual manipulation and, for his part, Norman seems deeply confused about his feelings for her. He sees Mom undressing in the window one afternoon, wearing one of those black lingerie get-ups people rarely wear without premeditation, and sporting one of those bodies it takes great genetics and then daily hours of gym-going to possess.
“I’m different,” Norman tells a girl at school, when she quasi-poetically notices that he’s like “a deep pool in a sea of concrete.” As this terrible line suggests, the first episode of “Bates Motel” is over the top, and not in a good way. A bombastically dark score drains the proceedings of nuance, and half the time the script seems cued to fit the generic theatricality of the music. A particularly weak and baseless plot point emerges midway through the episode, involving the local man mentioned above, who for no good reason turns into one of the hillbillies from “Deliverance” and commits a dastardly deed. It’s an example of a stock character type being blatantly, transparently used as a narrative set-up for the rest of the season.
Farmiga and Highmore are well cast, leaving one to hope that the series’ material improves. Highmore, with his neo-Beatles haircut, boyish face and beanstalk build, is a dead-ringer for a young Anthony Perkins, though his demeanor is more sweetly dorky IT kid than jittery, effeminate loner. That he would be the instant apple of a popular girl’s eye is a stretch, but I suppose it’s not unheard of.
A sharp actress with a vrai femme quality, Farmiga takes what would otherwise be a Mrs. Bates-turned-“Desperate Housewives” role and injects some wit into it, even though she has to suffer through that dumb “Deliverance”-esque scene I alluded to. When Norman comes home late from school, having been kept after class by a pretty teacher who insists he join the track team, Mrs. Bates trots out her best manipulative act, waving her hands over the hot dinner that has now gone cold, insinuating that a normal social life for Norman is disrespectful to their mother-and-son-against-the-world lifestyle. Farmiga’s line delivery is funny, which is a good way to swing mediocre dialogue.
The series does strike a nice balance between modern-day and vintage set design. The characters use iPods and smartphones, but their outfits and hairstyles have a retro flare, and the cinematography’s amber palette evokes the look of a mid-century photograph. A canny move, because “Psycho,” while black and white, is instantly identifiable with the early 1960s. “Bates Motel” would fare better with more of this thoughtfulness, with a sharper ear and eye to what is so beloved from Hitchcock’s master work, and the ways in which an updated narrative could successfully blend domestic horror, sexual perversity and a hint of smart subtlety with curtain-slicing shock value.