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.
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.
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.
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.