A&E is best known for shining a spotlight on real-life oddities, with a slew of hit reality series such as Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. But in spring 2013, Bates Motel joined the lineup and gained such a following that it was renewed for a second season less than a month later. The show isn’t based on real life, but it does derive from some very familiar source material: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
More than five decades ago, Hitchcock made cinematic history when Psycho debuted for American audiences. Since then, no onscreen mother-son relationship has been the same. The iconic thriller changed everything for movie-making; without it, shocking twists and creepy family dynamics wouldn’t be staples of the horror genre. Norman and Norma Bates are still one of the most famous — and famously horrifying — mother-son duos, but actor Anthony Perkins was the only actor involved in their creation. In Bates Motel, Norma Bates is still very much alive, and her son has yet to suffer the breakdown that made Psycho so disturbing.
The show takes place in the same setting, years before the events of Psycho unfolded. Norman is still in high school, and Norma just purchased the motel, in an effort to give them a fresh start after his father’s death. With the thrilling but ominous pace of a storm cloud overhead, Bates Motel follows the two as they adjust to their new lives and, more importantly, their new neighbors. Two veteran actors, Freddie Highmore (Norman) and Vera Farmiga (Norma), tackle these parts with hit-making ease.
22-year-old Highmore first emerged as a major talent at age twelve, with his award-winning portrayal of a young Peter Llewelyn Davies (the real-life inspiration for Peter Pan) in Finding Neverland. And luckily, he already has experience adapting an iconic movie for a skeptical, modern audience: he played the titular role in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But Bates Motel marks his final departure from “child star” and his emergence as a serious dramatic actor. Meanwhile, the part of Norma has already turned Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga into an Emmy nominee too; she was nominated in 2013 for her role in the show’s first season,
By the very nature of its source material, Bates Motel definitely isn’t family-friendly programming. Adult themes such as sex, violence, gore, and drugs are plentiful, but they’re not gratuitous; mature audiences will appreciate how carefully each scene is composed, and how organic the storytelling feels as a result.
For the past several years, cable TV and streaming services have blurred the lines between TV and film, but Bates Motel on A&E mixes them together in a brand new way, breathing life into a cinematic masterpiece. It’s no surprise that a cable channel finally managed to do what several remakes and sequels couldn’t; with this original series, A&E dusts off the Bates family saga and takes a startlingly revealing new approach. The episodic format of TV allows for in-depth characterization and layered plots that can’t be condensed into one movie, and this show capitalizes on that, peeling away a famous story to reveal all its gory details.
Watch Bates Motel on A&E Monday nights at 10pm/9c.