Every pilot has a list of things it needs to do: establish characters, pick a tone, introduce themes, tell a story, promise developments that will make us tune in next week. Bates Motel, however, has three additional tasks to tackle over the course of its pilot, and they are unenviable ones.
1. Make us forget we’re watching a prequel, so we can get sucked into the immediacy of the storytelling.
2. Make us forget Anthony Perkins in his signature role as Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (and also, in a related vein, make us not mind the absence of Hitchcock himself).
3. Justify a reason for existing by telling a really interesting story about young Norman Bates.
Does Bates Motel succeed in these goals? Respectively, my answers are: (1) sorta (2) kinda (3) not yet.
It’s not that Bates Motel makes any serious missteps, it’s just that the show, at this juncture, lacks the bristle of a really confident pilot. The concept, brought to us by Carlton “Lost” Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano, has promise—but as presented it doesn’t move far past the “concept” stage. Great shows have sprouted from humbler roots, but Bates Motel has its work cut out for it in order to distinguish itself as more than “the prequel to Psycho.”
In fact, “First You Dream, Then You Die” falls far too readily into the prequel trap of underlining portentous moments that mean nothing to the uninitiated. A little bit of it is fine. When Norman (Freddie Highmore) bonds with his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga) and says he doesn’t know what he’d do without her…that’s an earned “tee-hee” as well as an earnest dramatic beat. But the pilot is in love with reminding you of what’s to come, so we have several nudges here and there to Psycho that we really shouldn’t be indulging, including one especially lame moment where Norma proudly intones “We own a motel, Norman Bates.” Yes, we get it.
The premise is pretty straightforward: Norma and son, six months after a devastating loss, move into the motel property and start converting the ramshackle lodgings and adjoining mansion into livable space. Like many pilots, it suffers when it uncomfortably shoehorns in a plot to sandwich its character building, so in stumbles the motel’s former owner, Mr. Summers, who stomps his foot, screams at the family, then breaks into the mansion one night and rapes Norma while Norman has snuck out of the house. Soon, the family has a dead body on their hands, and they have to hide him in one of the motel bathrooms and rip up every single piece of carpeting under the nose of the sherriff (Nestor Carbonell).
The “murder cover-up” sequence is fairly suspenseful, but it feels reverse-engineered to give this upcoming season an arc, and the other breadcrumbs dropped here and there (a diary filled with S & M-esque sketches, a girl who totes an oxygen tank, a mystery woman chained up somewhere) feel like empty stabs to generate Twin Peaks-style weirdness. I applaud the show’s attempt to go for edgy material and earn its stripes as a cable drama, but the rape scene feels cheap and unworthy, and the oddball nature of the town is half-baked. Norman’s main adventure outside the confines of the mansion is to a party, and it’s not memorably weird, it’s just dull, and peopled by teenage characters that sound suspiciously like middle-aged writers.
There’s a strong, willfully-embraced sexual undercurrent that runs through the proceedings that’s effective in small doses. Most disturbingly, when Norman comes home full of prospects, his mother deflates them by sounding a note suspiciously reminiscent of marital discord. Farmiga is exceptionally good as Norma, sidestepping campiness even when given risible dialogue (her post-rape discussion with Norman feels like nothing a human being would ever say). Mostly she navigates the moods of Norma well: playful, passive-aggressive, sincere, slippery. She’s the character with the most promise, though she’s conceived to be the standard figure in every prequel: the flawed mentor who shapes how our hero sees the world. (“No one will ever help us!” she says to Norman in one of the more obvious moments.)
As for Norman himself? He’s kind of a cipher. Freddie Highmore, it must be said, does a good job with Norman’s mannerisms and ticks. He’s clearly inspired by the Perkins performance, but he makes the character his own. Yet Norman has little to do in the pilot except make improbably cute friends at school, get talked into going to parties, and yell at Norma (as good as Farmiga is as playing the pathologically manipulative and controlling Norma, Highmore overacts during every one of his rebuttals). If he’s our protagonist, let’s see him take action.
There’s a potentially really fascinating story here in Bates Motel: the tale of how a high school outcast (as so many of us were) becomes a monster. But this first episode doesn’t really start that story. It simply assures us that eventually it will be told. As the pilot comes to a close, the Bates Motel sign is erected, mother and son embrace a little too sensually, and all I can think is: okay, we’re here. Now tell us why we’re here.