Checking into Bates Motel
I remember many years ago the announcement of a new TV series called Friday the Thirteenth. Obviously the title was capitalizing on the (inexplicable) popularity of the Jason Voorhees movies. I remember thinking, “How on earth can they make an ongoing series about Jason Voorhees?” Of course they weren’t. They didn’t. It was some stupid thing about having to recover a bunch of occult-powered items that weren’t supposed to be sold despite their presence in a curiosity shop but were anyway. Kind of like the stupid Haunted Collector fiasco on the SyFy Channel (itself something of a fiasco). But nowadays there is a series about a serial killer, Dexter, though I haven’t seen it. But it is still quite a surprise to see the Robert Bloch/Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Psycho becoming a television series. Bates Motel completed its first season to viewer enthusiasm and critical acclaim. I know I liked it. And if you didn’t, well, you can go straight to hell.
But this isn’t the first attempt to create a Bates Motel TV series. Back in the late 80s there was a dead-end pilot with the same title. The premise had Norman Bates, before he died in prison, bequeathing the eponymous motel to some weird-looking kid, who tries to make a go of it. But unscrupulous investors (or whatever), believing there is a fortune hidden somewhere on the property, try to ruin the new business by faking the haunting of the motel by a ghostly Mrs. Bates. There was a mildly enjoyable scene with the fake Norma Bates lunging after someone, knife in hand. But there was also the scene in which somebody was wearing a chicken suit. Mercifully, the network passed on the thing. I videotaped it just because I’m a Psycho completest. I’ve got all the movies, including the Showtime production Psycho IV. I even begged a local cable provider into giving me their promotional poster for the movie. I had it framed. (I’ve also got both Norman Bates action figures as well as the plastic model of his house, plus a lobby standee for Psycho III.)
Well, once I made the mistake of mentioning that Bates Motel pilot to Robert Bloch. Fireworks! I mean, he was still smarting from Psycho II (ripped off from his script for the nifty Joan Crawford flick Straitjacket). I gather he had made the mistake of surrendering the rights to Psycho and Norman Bates. Maybe that’s why Bloch’s name, as far as I can see (please correct me if I’m wrong), never appears in the credits for the new version of Bates Motel (though IMDB lists him in the writing credits since the show is based on his characters). But I did enjoy the show. I’m sure I’ll be buying the DVDs when I can afford ‘em. It sure beats its predecessor. So far, so good: no chicken suits.
So how’d they manage to stretch Psycho into a series? By modeling it on Twin Peaks, as the creators readily admit. In fact, they say they see it as virtually a continuation of Twin Peaks. Okay by me; I was a Twin Peaks fan, too. (Did you ever notice how X-Files was kind of a sequel to Twin Peaks, and Fringe was explicitly a continuation of X-Files?) This, I figure, is why they moved the site of the Bates Motel and house from Fairvale, California, to White Pine Bay, Oregon, another Pacific Northwest locale. Imagine Norman as a regular on Northern Exposure. The whole place is a gallery of weirdoes and pervasive perversion and crime. “Show them Machen’s Great God Pan, and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal.” But don’t worry, Norman’s in no danger of getting lost in the shamble. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to make his bloody mark.
The series is a prequel to the events of Psycho. Norman is a young teenager, a nerdish pariah. He has an older half-brother and a near-girlfriend. After a stray dog he adopted gets run over, he takes up the study of what Bugs Bunny called “taxidoimy.” We are building step by step to the Norman we know and love. We eventually learn that he killed his father (who used to beat his mother) in some kind of psychotic fugue state, then promptly forgot he did it. The season ends with another such killing, this time a gorgeous teacher who had shown a little too much concern for him. He was sitting in her apartment as she undressed in the next room, when he hallucinated his mother sitting beside him, telling him, “You know what you have to do.” We are to understand that this is only the beginning of his imagined mother giving him his orders. In fact, I hope that, when the time comes for Norman to kill his mother, he does it at the behest of his hallucinated mother! Let’s wait and see.
How, you may ask, can they have moved the whole shebang to Oregon? Bates Motel is, as it must be, a reimagining and retelling of the story of Norman Bates. It is set in 2013. They could, I suppose, have made a strict prequel, everything retro like Mad Men. But I don’t think that would have allowed enough creative freedom to fill out a whole series. Think of the limitations attaching to Psycho IV. We saw representative scenes from Norman’s teen years, enough to account for his subsequent madness, but a few flashbacks was all it took. Better to use new wineskins to provide room for the new wine to ferment and expand.
Given Norman’s mother’s pivotal role in making her son what he would become, it is no surprise that she slightly overshadows Norman in this initial season of Bates Motel. The characterization is well done. Norma is believable as a quirky, disturbing, flawed, yet sympathetic figure mummy-wrapping Norman in her apron strings. Vera Farmiga is terrific in the role, as is Freddie Highmore, who plays her famous son. A recurring character in the first three Psycho movies was Sherriff John Hunt (Hugh Gillin). Here he is replaced by Sherriff Alex Romano (Nestor Carbonell)—who looks like Anthony Perkins! I love it! We find ourselves missing Perkins’s beloved features? We got ‘em! Just not as Norman, inevitably.
I just can’t believe the luck! I’m living in a world that contains good superhero movies, one TV series based on S. H.I.E.L.D. and another based on Psycho! If I’m dreaming, don’t wake me up! If I’m hallucinating, don’t tell me to kill anybody.
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.
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