First Season Post-Mortem: Bates Motel


One of the benefits to being as old as I am is that I’ve seen more than enough of my share of film and television to make me truly cynical about the entire storytelling process. There really is nothing ‘new’ under the sun; there are just retreads, rehashes, reboots, and regurgitation.

Take A&E’s Bates Motel, for example.

Bates Motel burst out of its starting gate with an impressive pilot episode – one that looked like David Lynch had finally returned to the boob tube to weave another season of the memorable but inevitably confusing Twin Peaks. Audiences were understandably swept away with this tale of ‘The Young Norman Bates Chronicles,’ made fittingly complete with fresh-faced Freddie Highmore playing a believable psycho-in-training as the certifiably affable Norman.

Back, in top form, was the row of motel rooms along a quiet highway.

Back was the signature creepy house on the hill.

Back was Mama Bates – sans all the taxidermy – played with a lovable ‘what’s wrong with her?’ vibe by Vera Farmiga.


Of course, those of us familiar with a thing or two about film know that Bates Motel is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a black-and-white thriller that went on to garner an impressive four Academy Award nominations. That story featured a thieving secretary (Janet Leigh) on the run; she stopped for the night at the motel only to encounter fatal foul play at the hands of owner/manager, Norman (Anthony Perkins). Psycho thrilled audiences, and, much later, the film enjoyed a few sequels that were nothing special. So when A&E set their sights on the property, the Psycho franchise was all but “dead.”

In order to revisit the world crafted by Hitchcock from a story by Robert Bloch and Joseph Stefano, creator Anthony Cipriano moved the timeframe to present day but designed the program to be a prequel-of-sorts. Hoping for a fresh start after the tragic death of her second husband (or was it?), Norma Bates buys a motel out of foreclosure (or did she?) and sets up shop with her son Norman to help out (or will he?). Before she can say ‘room service,’ she’s harassed and sexually assaulted by the former owner, whom she and her son kill and then haphazardly dispose of the body. This, of course, sets all kinds of curious agendas into motion, most of which come to a head over the course of the first season’s ten episodes.

In fact, the show’s season finale (“Midnight”) aired this past Monday, and I thought it worth sounding off on this inaugural season.


As I said, fans of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks can draw many, many comparisons between the two programs. The setting feels reminiscent, though Peaks certainly took greater advantage of its enveloping woodlands. Both shows relied heavily on a predominantly young cast, setting the routine foibles of high school life against the harsher, colder reality of adulthood. Norma and Norman share an unconventional closeness, much in the way Peaks’ Leland Palmer strayed close to the bounds of propriety with his daughter, Laura.

And everyone – and I do mean everyone – in both towns appear as if they have something to hide.

It’s comparisons like this that may bring to light Bates’ undoing.

See, what made the original Psycho work was a variety of factors all measured against ‘the norm.’ Heck, one can almost make out the word ‘normal’ in Norman’s name, and that’s certainly no coincidence. Hitchcock presented Norman as ‘just another passing face’ – an average fellow in an average job handling the needs of others while caring for an ailing mother. Pretty normal, no? Hitchcock contrasted these routine traits against the evil Norman explored via his split personality – one his own, one his mother’s – and that created the singular impact of the film.

With Bates Motel, everyone appears evil. Or perhaps it’s safer to say that no one appears normal.


Norma’s committed murder (perhaps more than once), and she’s willing to cover up the same for her son. (That equals ‘evil.’) Also, her first child – Dylan – shows up on the scene, clearly hoping to exploit the mother/son relationship for what it’s worth; this lasts until he secures illicit employment all of his own, and then he wants nothing to do with her. (Lesser evil but still evil.) The motel’s former owner used the premises to traffic heavily in the business of sex slaves. (Definitely evil!) The town’s economy relies heavily on the vast marijuana fields secreted away just outside of town. (Mucho evil!) The sheriff and his deputies all appear complicit with the lawlessness; if not entirely complicit, then they’re at least willing to let it go on unabated. (Evil by proxy.) The high schoolers are rude and cliquish. (Evil!) Norman’s teacher appears to have the hots for him. (Sexy evil!) And so on and so forth …

Now, those who’ve watched the program, I know what you’re thinking:

“Well, Mr. Negative, what about the comely lass, Emma Decody? She isn’t evil! And what about her dad? Mr. Decody? He seems perfectly regular!”

Those are fair points, but look at how they’ve been cleverly crafted and deposited in this world of darkness. Emma – who obviously pines for Norman’s affections – is stricken with cystic fibrosis. She totes around an oxygen tank in order to survive. And dear old dad? Will? So far, he’s only been presented as a taxidermist who apparently wasn’t good enough for his wife. Regular folks – let’s call them ‘non-evil’ – get depicted as damaged goods in a world requiring lawlessness or the disregard for human decency. While everyone else is happily enjoying sex, pot, and various other stages of depravity, the ‘non-evil’ ones are stuck home sucking life out of machinery – or in Will’s case – dead animals. They’re incomplete. They’re less than ‘normal.’

Is that because they’re good?

No. Like Jessica Rabbit, they were built that way, and that says something about the intents of the program.


In a world where everyone is presumed evil, there’s no scale of normalcy available to measure the sins against. All that remains to gauge these events against is whatever moral code the audience believes in; and audiences – perhaps the most fickle entity known to man – tend to be all over the place. Sure, we can find enjoyment and even laughter by experiencing badness vicariously, but what tends to bring disparate audience members together is having either a person or a cause to rally for, to get behind, to tune in for each and every week, and that’s something missing from this overnight stay.

Of course, there’s always Norman’s descent into eventual madness that’s worth watching. If done right, it could prove to be the stuff of legend. Despite some clunky writing, Highmore is hitting every note right. And I’ll also admit that Farmiga – always a joy to watch – is clearly having way too fun embracing Norma’s fragile psyche as the nutty mama who may’ve loved her son way too much. Still, there’s room for a character to serve as a moral compass, and methinks it might even make for a better program.
Maybe next season?

After all, if I want to just watch folks behaving badly, Cops is always on somewhere.

Similar Posts


  1. Did you just imply that sexual slavery is less evil than growing pot or were you adding up all the cumulative evil as you went?

    This is a good show. I like that the deranged killer and his demented mother are the protagonists you kind of root for because the Bate’s deeds are not entirely their own fault, but so much of what surrounds them is deliberate evil. A very interesting and superior retelling of stuff that was essentially covered in the Psycho se/prequels.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.