I watched the premiere of "Bates Motel" last night. An interesting experience, as I hadn't read anything about the show beforehand. The general premise, though, seemed obvious enough, based on the title and the fact that the main characters are Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga).
The show opens with the death of Norman's father. Six months later, the remaining Bateses hop into a vintage car and relocate from Arizona to a coastal town (not sure whether it's California or Oregon), where Norma has purchased a run-down motel and the oh-so-familiar mansion on the hill behind it. Norma strikes a pin-up pose on the hood of her car for Norman to take a picture commemorating their arrival. The pair enter the mansion, filled with early century furniture covered in drop-cloths. Norma explains that here they will make a new start.
OK. So far, so good: It's a prequel. Through this show, we will learn how nice, polite Norman becomes a Hitchcockian shower-slasher. When the show comes back from commercial, though, things go. . .sideways: Norman is sitting outside fiddling with what look like iPod earbuds. Suddenly, a group of girls drives up in an unmistakably modern-day BMW convertible. In other words, we are no longer in the 1950's; turns out, we never were. While the main characters are clearly the iconic figures from "Psycho," the show itself is set in 2013. It's not a prequel; it's a "reboot."
The show is enjoyable, as far as it goes. Vera Farmiga's a good actress, and Norma is an interesting character: strong-willed, humorous, devoted to Norman, but with the incipient overbearingness that we can imagine inevitably leading to psychopathology. Freddie Highmore plays Norman with the expected amount of teenage awkwardness, while investing him with a likable degree of wit and, yes, humanity. The rest of the cast fills the Bateses' new seaside home with a degree of eccentricity reminiscent of "Twin Peaks."
So why the modern-day setting? Ultimately, this affords the viewer a modicum of hope. Sure, Norman could become a serial-killer, but maybe he won't. There is no inevitable Janet Leigh waiting a few short years in the future. Only as the series unfolds will we learn whether Norman's story is the tragedy we have come to expect.