Lately there has been much praise (rightfully so) for the FX show Fargo, which built upon the mythology laid down before it from the Coen Brothers film from almost two decades ago, and creates some of its own. With Bates Motel, we have a show on the A&E network doing a similar thing, but with the Hitchcock classic Psycho.
The show has a recognizable name as one of the creative forces behind it, with Carlton Cuse (Lost) as one of the executive producers and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) as another (Anthony Cipriano is the third). Set in the fictional Oregon town of White Pine Bay, the show features Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore, August Rush) in his teenaged years, living with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground). Norma bought a hotel there after her husband was killed, and the show follows them as they try to regain their lives and control Norman's dangerous mental illness.
While Bates Motel spends a good amount of time around the relationship between Norman and Norma, it doesn't limit itself to those characters. Max Thieriot (Disconnect) plays Dylan, half-brother of Norman and whose relationship with Norma has been tense through the years. Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) plays Norman's best friend Emma, who has cystic fibrosis, and Nicola Peltz (The Last Airbender) is Bradley, a popular girl in school who befriends Norman.
Bates Motel is a tale of two stories. Chances are if you came to the show in the first place, it was to see what would happen in this self-described ‘contemporary prequel' to the story of Bates. So you want to see when Norman starts to crack so then that way you can see it first. Or perhaps you want to see what it was that made Norman like his mother in the unique way that he did. You get those things, as Highmore portrays Norman's slow descent into violent madness nicely, while still having a childish sense of charm about the world around him. Farmiga packs strength, with moments of vulnerability into an attractive package that does a fine job of making mother…mother.
The secondary story arcs are somewhat erratic, despite the appearance of familiar faces in the season. Kenny Johnson appeared in Season Two as Norma's brother Caleb, and was added as a cast regular in Season Three, joined by fellow and more visible Sons of Anarchy alum Ryan Hurst, who plays Chick, a mysterious man who runs some small criminal enterprises. In the backdrop of many of this arcs is Alex Romero, played by Cuse's Lost buddy Nestor Carbonell, and in this season, a childhood friend of Romero's named Bob Paris (Kevin Rahm, Mad Men) appears, who has a larger set of criminal enterprises and exploits Romero's friendship to his own interests.
The reason why some of these arcs are erratic is that it's dependent on who is in them. Farmiga's place in them is generally good, though a story where an encrypted USB drive comes into her possession almost wanders into the first season of Weeds in that it becomes implausible to the point of near-hilarity. Near the end of the season, she slowly comes to terms with how her husband dies and it's done pretty well. The arcs where Highmore is involved are less effective. It's almost as if he doesn't want to be in them either, and wants to focus on his interpretation of Norman without distraction. I get that, but in this setting the way Cuse and Ehrin have set it up, Highmore has to do more, and if he accepts that, then Bates Motel becomes more appealing.
While Bates Motel is a nice idea, to the point where you allow yourself to allow these new characters from the Bates family into your life, there still exist some moments where the key character in the show defers to what Anthony Perkins laid down a half-century ago. And I get that deference Highmore exercises to a degree, but if you don't make enough of the character your own, then the results can occasionally be underachieving, which occurs in Season Three of the show. Make your own history Freddie, you'll be all the better for it.The Discs:
Bates Motel is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Season Three's ten-episode run spread over three discs, with our on the first disc, and three on each of the other two. Images look nice, with Oregon (but actually Vancouver) exteriors having a nice amount of vivid color in the greens of the daytime, the night shots have nice levels of black in them with minimal bouts of crushing. Image detail in tight shots is decent as well. The set is a nice representation of the show.The Sound:
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for all of the episodes, and there's a slight mixed bag to it. The opening credits use a dark, ominous sounding explosion which makes use of the subwoofer, but once you get into the meat of the show, you experience a largely quiet soundtrack. The few moments of dynamic action are focused and the channel panning/directional effects are fairly scarce. The show has some solid production values that are represented well on disc.Extras:
Deleted scenes are on nine of the season's ten episodes (28, 24:46) and a featurette titled "A Broken Psyche" (7:16) where Cuse and Ehrin discuss how they viewed Season Three and the relationship between Norman and Norma, and the motivations of Norman for his actions in the show. It's a nice piece, but the extras feel more obligatory than beneficial.Final Thoughts:
The idea of Bates Motel may be daunting but Cuse, Ehrin and Cipriano do manage to pull it off to a degree, thanks to a decent ensemble and nice performances by Farmiga and Highmore. That said, Highmore does tend to hold back at times and the character and show suffer from it on occasion. Let go of the pool and swim on your own, and the show can be another Fargo. Definitely worth checking out if you haven't, and you can make the decision to binge the rest from there.