Alfred Hitchcock’s famous explanation about the real difference between surprise and suspense – a bomb exploding with no warning vs. being forewarned about the bomb in advance – lies at the heart of the difference between his film Psycho (based on the Robert Bloch novel) and the new A&E television series Bates Motel, which examines Norman Bates’ upbringing and the events that will ultimately mold him into a cross-dressing murderer with dual personalities.

The series premiere, in some ways, feels like a darker variation on themes and ideas from executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin’s (Friday Night Lights) successful television productions. Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s landmark proto-slasher classic casts a shadow over the proceedings, in some ways more subtle than others.

Combine all that with show creator Anthony Cipriano’s attempts to lay the groundwork for later developments, and what you have is a first episode which is much like young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore): aloof, but with potential to develop into something worthwhile – or, rather, go off the rails entirely (of course, we already know which way Norman goes…).

However, Vera Farmiga as Norma Louise “Mother” Bates is the real star of Bates Motel (so far). The first scene quietly suggests that Norman’s well-documented Oedipal complex is something encouraged by his mother, as her initial nonchalance towards Highmore stumbling upon his dead father indicates she may’ve beaten her son to the punch and killed her husband on her own. That writer Ciapriano and director Tucker Gates choose to open on a television playing a scene from His Girl Friday – where Ralph Bellamy discusses his own domineering matriarch to Cary Grant – might be just a bit much on the nose, but it does offer a satirical contrast to what follows.

Norma’s subsequent actions in the episode – including her observation that “Boys take their father’s name all the time” – further establish that her lack of interest in upholding the patriarchal order has evolved into something malicious. However, as shown during her personal interactions with Norman, she’s more complex than just a victim of general misogyny – though, she has justification for turning violent, after the implied (?) abuse by her husband and being assaulted by Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown).

Not to mention, the chance that she – and all the other women in Norman’s life for that matter – could end up suffering brutality at the hands of suspicious Sheriff Royce Romero (Nester Carbonell) and the misleadingly (?) innocuous Deputy Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel), based on preliminary impressions concerning what Norman uncovered beneath the motel’s cabin carpeting. The officers’ timing may have been perfectly inconvenient for the Bateses, but their worries seemingly extend beyond any possible illicit activities that Norma and her son might be up to.

Speaking of which: Norman’s interest toward the opposite sex is not developing in a healthy manner, between him perusing a newfound book full of sketches which depict women being physically-abused (Norman’s equivalent of “dirty magazines” in his bedroom) and his newly-acquired obsession with Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz) – a prospective love interest, whose oh-so forward manner and blonde hair color have probably lead young Mr. Bates to imagine she’s what his mother was like when she was younger (creepy…).

You have to feel all the more pity for Emma DeCody (Olivia Cooke), the briefly-seen high school girl with cystic fibrosis who immediately takes a liking to awkward, yet charming, young Norman (while remaining blissfully unaware of what she’s getting herself into).

Ciapriano and Gates keep busy in the premiere (titled “First You Dream, Then You Die”), between establishing all of these character dynamics, planting the seeds for a Twin Peaks-esque exploration of small-town America’s dark side AND fitting in pieces of Psycho visual iconography and homages – some of which jump out right away (see: Brown’s corpse in the bathtub/shower), while others are more carefully integrated with the story.

It amounts to a whole lot of psycho-sexual material and Noir genre references in a short period of time, but it remains to be seen if that approach can (or, rather, will) be carried over into later episodes. Of course, Bates Motel has the advantage over something like American Horror Story (should it use a similar kitchen-sink approach, that is) – ultimately, the former has a locked-in destination which it cannot alter course from.

Between an engaging female presence in Farmiga as Norma and the potential for Highmore to bloom as Norman descends further into madness, the journey through an insidious small coastal town’s underbelly (where its corrupt denizens meet their match in the Bateses) could prove to be a ride worth taking.

What remains to be seen is if the show will suffer from the fact that everyone watching is just waiting for the “bomb” (re: Norman) to explode – since it’s clear that the showrunners have a much larger agenda in mind beyond filling in the blanks in terms of how the relationship between Norma and Norman ceases to be mildly disturbing, yet oddly touching (and becomes something far more terrible).

You can watch the first episode online by going HERE.

Stray Observations:

  • The present-day setting hasn’t come into effect much so far, other than as a means to characterize Norman through his iPhone’s musical selections (“Go Outside” by The Cults – appropriate for a budding maniac), versus his mother listening to a crackling record featuring The Rolling Stone’s “Beast of Burden” (again, fitting choice).
  • Nothing like dumping a body in the water to strengthen the bond between mother and son, right?
  • What’s stranger: Norman quoting Jane Eyre to his mother or quoting the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles film version of that story?
  • That mysterious woman who stops before entering her car to watch Norma – as she crosses the street and discovers the town meeting about the Highway 88 bypass – a Red Herring? Foreshadowing? Or just an extra who couldn’t help but look in the direction of the camera?

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Bates Motel continues next Monday with ‘Nice Town You Picked Norma’ @10/9c on A&E.