"Bates Motel" Review: A Mother's Best Friend Is Her Son

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | March 20, 2013 | Comments ()


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I'm spoiling an entire sequence for you in the pilot by revealing this, but there's a scene three-quarters through the episode that epitomizes Carlton Cuse's new A&E series, "Bates Motel." After Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is handcuffed to a table and raped by the former owner of the "Bates Motel" (W. Earl Brown), whose family lost the place to foreclosure, Norman (Freddie Highmore) arrives from nowhere, and knocks the former owner out. Pants around his knees, the former owner lies unconscious for a moment, while Norman leaves the room. When the former owner awakens, he stumbles toward Norma and leers, "Oh, you know you liked it." Provoked, Norma takes a kitchen knife and stabs him. There's real gusto to the first couple of plunges, but she quickly loses interest, and lazily jabs the knife into the former owner's chest with a kind of apathy and indifference, a note of boredom writ across her face.

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It's a perfect metaphor for the series as a whole, or at least the pilot episode: Cuse tears the plastic off the premise with his teeth, but somewhere along the way, he seems to get bored with it, quickly veering away from anything to do with Alfred HItchcock's Pscyho, save for the character names.

Six months after Norman's father dies of mysterious circumstances (Norma's shrugging indifference suggests she had a hand in it), Norma purchases a faltering motel adjacent to a giant, Gothic house with an eye toward fixing the buildings up and turning the Bates Motel into a fresh start, a new life her her and her son. Norma is clearly infatuated with Norman, while Norman -- an obvious Mama's boy -- seems as though he's coming out of a stage.

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Enter five teenage jezebels, who look like they walked off the set of "Pretty Little Liars," expressing a sudden interest in the new kid. It's difficult to make sense of why, but their interest -- and Norman's own interest in participating in school activities -- sets Norma off, and we finally figure out what we're dealing with: A woman truly, psychotically obsessed with her own son, refusing to share him with anyone else.

By this point, midway through the episode, any idea of subtlety or nuance is tossed out the window, doubly so when Norman's teacher shows an immediate sexual interest in him. It becomes evident that "Bates Motel" will never be appreciated for anything other than its camp value: There's a certain "American Horror Story" vibe to it, intermingled with the dreary melodram of "Revenge," and a tinge of Mommie Dearest and Fall-Out Boy thrown in for taste. We're left with gangly emo kid with a bad American accent fighting off his mother's affection, throwing up with glee into school trash cans, and developing a slow-burning relationship with a hot classmate, who were supposed to believe is homely because she carries with her an oxygen tank.

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It's not a complete waste, however. There's some fun to be had, mostly in Vera Farmiga, who attacks the role with the fervor of a starving vegetarian scarfing down a piece of raw meat, which is to say, a form of rabid disgust. Highmore is awful, but in a fun way: He looks the part of a young Norman Bates, but he acts more like someone from The Perks of Being a Wallflower on a sugar high of Morissey and Pixy Stix. There's some moderate intrigue in the premise itself, but I get the sense it will wear out its welcome soon. How long can it simmer before "Bates Motel" morphs into Spanking the Monkey. How long can "Bates Motel" chew through plot before it runs out of sausage?

I wouldn't expect much from the series, but it may be able to hold our interest for half a season before it Ryan Murphy's its forehead into a mirror.


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  • suicidal stu

    terrible series. performances so hammy even perkins would blush, ridiculous plotlines and badly drawn characters. a premise which offered so much potential for a nuanced study of a boy's descent into madness squandered by the ridiculous overblown scooby-doo plotting shenanigans we are being force fed. every now and then the writers seem to remember that this is not smallville and crowbar in a tediously rushed scene where norman and his mopther shout at each other for a bit to remind us that what the show should be about in which farmiga and highmore both give it there best shot but really aren't given enough material there to work with, and then off we go again with a load of fucking nonsense about weed and sex slaves and shootings and mysterious strangers. the tragedy of the original Norman Bates was precisely his lack of worldliness, the claustrophobia and the lonliness he felt. throwing the character into this famous five on pcp kind of environment misses the fucking point by a country mile. as does providing him with a steady parade of pretty girls who are all desparate to fuck him?! there are enough inane teen mystery adventure series on the telly to bore the fuck out of me for the rest of my life, without using the name of the much beloved psycho franchise to flog another one. there is nothing here for lovers of the original movie. the norman bates character might just as well be called fred bloggs! shit!

  • Strand

    Better than I thought, though that rape scene was awfully Deliverance-ish. That guy had a handy duct tape holster clip on his belt. Is that a thing rapists or hillbillies actually do?

  • Skyler Durden

    I sort of loved it, and will watch it faithfully until it dies ignominiously in two weeks.

    Alternative title: "We Need To Talk About Freddie's Accent."

  • RantOver

    You might want to move the spoilery gifs down just a little, so we're not hit with them as we open the article.

    I clicked to avoid bold 'spoiler' tags, just to check "will this be worth a watch?" and before I'd managed to test the water with how positive or negative the intro to the review was, I'd seen a big stabbing from a main character.

    Don't usually like bitching about spoilers, but you could find a better way to present this. Most people read reviews to see if something's worth catching up on, not to listen to what you had to say about it.

  • Wednesday

    This is one of those shows that is so by-the-numbers that I can't suspend disbelief enough to enjoy it. A whole freaking team of hot girls swarms the new kid? A teacher insists the new kid joins the track team on day one? And she's not the track coach who happened to see him sprinting to school?

    No. Even Vera Farminga couldn't save this for me.

  • St

    Thank you for noticing sudden interest of those hot teen girls in Norman, who looks like a loser that people make fan of, and not like some super hot pretty boy. That was the most unbelievable and distracting thing in the pilot for me. I kept waiting for those girls to reveal that they were planing some sick joke on Norman.

    But Vera is flawless. So good as legendary Mother. We never could enjoy her in Psycho. But now we can see her alive. Freddy was surprisingly weak.

    Bates Motel is one of those shows that you can review, talk about, love it or hate it. But still you would care about it.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I think the thing with the girls was sort of a clumsy feint, at least halfway. We think of Norman as a psycho already, so we throw pretty girls at him and expect them to immediately create some traumatic incident to help him on his way, but it turns out it's... just a small town thing. And I buy the small town thing; even if you aren't all that hot or cool, in a sufficiently small town, which they seem to kinda be pretending this is, any new person is that interesting for at least a few days.

    I actually think there's a fair amount of potential here, a lot of it sort of screwed up by pilot syndrome in having to set things up and also phase in that whole, "Oh, it's contemporary, BTW," thing. Definitely I'm giving it a few more episodes to see if things settle in better and improve. And if Freddy figures out what the hell is up with his accent.

  • Brooke

    I'll give it another shot, mainly to see if that awful American accent gets any better. The constant shifting in and out of it was very distracting. I've never seen such a poor attempt from someone who wasn't just goofing around.

  • ZombieMrsSmith

    I managed to get through the first 13 minutes.

  • Jill

    Same here. I got up to the scene with her telling him she'll "do all the work herself." No subtlety at all to this show.

  • NateMan

    I can't even begin to take this show seriously. How can anyone look at the title and not see it as a masturbation joke is beyond me. Admittedly, I have the mental maturity of a 13yr old, but still.

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