I'm kind of curious about some of the one star reviews here that rate it low based on the "violence and murder." What did these reviewers expect from show based on "Psycho?" A sweet tale about a boy and his mom? I mwan come on! These people should have known what they were getting themselves into right from the beginning. It's based on the most classic of classic horror films!
I'll admit, I was wary of this one when I saw the very first promo for it online. You don't mess with classics, and by all accounts, Hitchcock's "Psycho" is about as classic as it gets. Even more concerning was the apparent modernization of the tale. But the more I saw, the more intrigued I became. There was something about that creepy little smile of Freddie Highmore's that made me deeply curious.
I have to say, the first episode hooked me. Highmore plays young Norman Bates and his quirks with a creepy subtlety that pays homage Anthony Perkins performance in the original. He's humble, naïve, polite and mild mannered yet you can see that budding psychotic fighting to come through pretty early on. It's in no way overdone, and Norman is completely unaware of this other self. Yet you can sympathize with the kid. He's socially awkward and sometimes blunt and inappropriate, but even then, you can't hate him. Maybe it's knowing what he becomes that makes it sympathetic, knowing that this smart (mostly) nice kid has such a fate in store for him. Maybe it's just Highmore's portrayal of him, or a little of both. Either way, his journey into psychosis is a nuanced slow burn rather than an outright explosion. You can see it building slowly alongside the building tension from episode to episode, a little at a time.
Special mention goes to Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates, who is just phenomenal in this role. At times, her reactions are those of a normal but overwhelmed single mom. Other times, she goes completely off the deep end. Sometimes, she's strong and in control, sometimes she cracks and becomes completely helpless. One minute, she's nurturing, loving and every bit the `good' mother. The next, she's selfish, childish and manipulative. The thing is you're never sure which Norma it will be. You also can't be sure if she's telling the truth. Sometimes she delivers lies with convincing ease and other times is the worst liar in the world, telegraphing her guilt like a neon sign.
On the surface her relationship with Norman seems based on a genuinely close bond between mother and son, but it quickly becomes apparent that it's an unhealthy and sometimes uncomfortable one. Norma wants Norman to be her friend so badly, she smothers him and becomes jealous of time spent with anyone other than her. Any time Norman makes a bid for freedom, she lays the guilt on like an over dramatic 13 year old girl with a case of the "don't mind me, I'll just lay here and die," blues. Norma seems incapable of making the right decision and winds up digging a hole so deep she would be better off burying herself in it. Of course, she can't take ownership for any of these decisions and lays the blame anywhere she can, including on Norman.
On some level, Norma knows that there's something wrong with Norman. She knows that sometimes he's not himself, but she will do ANYTHING to protect him. And I mean anything. I won't give too much away here, but this is a woman who is quick to judge others but is often guilty of the things she accuses them of. But she's not entirely unsympathetic. It's pretty clear she's unbalanced, had a troubled childhood, has recently lost her husband (who may have been abusive) and is trying hard to start over. Not to mention, the events of the first episode are, in short, horrific. But, just when you start to feel bad for her, she does something creepy, inappropriate or just plain stupid and you hate her again.
Then, there's the addition of an older brother named Dylan. He seems to be the only person in the family who isn't suffering from mental illness. True, it doesn't seems like he can keep a job and he has a chip on his shoulder, but in all respects, there's nothing really worrisome about him. That is, other than his new job and a bad choice midseason that he shows no remorse for and apparently there are no consequences for. He's definitely not innocent. Still, he's only one who seems to acknowledge (at least to himself) there's something wrong with Norman. He's openly critical of the unnatural closeness between mom and brother, and at first it seems like jealousy. But then it becomes apparent that it's out of genuine concern for his little brother.
Personally, Dylan's a bit bland for me. It's not that the acting, writing or story line is bland, it's just that it almost seems like he was created to move some sub plots along and to enrich the family dynamic. The jury's still out because he has potential if they can figure out where they're going with him. There are shades of corruption in him, but also shades of morality.
The true moral compass in this story comes in the form of Emma, a girl with cystic fibrosis and Norman's only friend. Emma may be the only innocent one in this series, as it seems the rest of the town is just as shady, twisted and crazy as the Bates family. She genuinely likes him and sometimes overlooks his bluntness and occasional outburst because her innocence prevents it, and perhaps because she has feelings for him. She's honest and kind and outspoken about injustice. Unfortunately, her actions may directly impact Norman and his slow descent into psychosis.
Emma's the only character I truly fear for in this entire series. As corrupt as everyone else is, if they get their due, it's probably fitting. Those that have perished so far `had it coming.' And we know the fate of Norma and Norman Bates, don't we? I hope that Emma's innocence will be what saves her, but I fear that maybe it won't. We shall see, no?
There are some fun references in this that relate back to "Psycho," and one or two other Hitchcock "easter eggs," such as a reference to "The Birds." We also learn where Norman learned about Taxidermy. Then, there's the scene where Norman speaks using his mother's voice. Holy Bejebus. I got chills. He replicates word for word something his mother said earlier in the evening about a girl he likes. The delivery and tone were spot on and absolutely chilling.
Some people have criticized the sex slave story line, but I kind of get it. In the beginning of this story line, the images in the book Norman finds clearly have a huge impact on him. There's an emphasis on the drawings of the shower to tip you off. Not to mention, this story line drives a lot of the events that happen in the series. I can't wait for season 2 to find out how much crazy is still in store for us. And I really hope that "Bates Motel" doesn't go the way of so many really great shows that had great first seasons and fell apart in the second (Heroes comes to mind).
Fans of the original movie may hate this for various reasons, but speaking as a fan of "Psycho" (since childhood, as a matter of fact - I bad parents who let me watch whatever I wanted) I love it. Sure, it's not 100% canon compliant, but I expected that. So long as you don't go into it with a purist attitude, I don't think you'll be disappointed.