SXSW Review: Bates Motel

 SXSW Review: Bates Motel SXSW Review: Bates MotelEven though South by SouthWest is primarily a film, music and interactive festival, television has started to creep in and A&E decided to use it as the venue to launch their new horror-drama Bates Motel which premieres on Monday, March 18 at 10PM.

Bates Motel follows in the footsteps of the latest TV horror trend behind FX’s American Horror Story and AMC’s The Walking Dead although it’s also treading on dangerous ground by trying to create a prequel to the Alfred Hitchcock Psycho and the Norman Bates character as personified by Anthony Perkins. The intention of the series is to show Norman and his mother, as played by Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, during their early days which ultimately lead up to how we find them in Psycho.

On Monday morning, March 11th, A&E screened the first of what’s going to be a ten-episode season, which opens with Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates discovering his father has died, so his mother Norma (played by Vera Farmiga) buys the Seafairer Motel (sic) and the classic old house up in the hills as they try to settle into a new life after his father’s death. Norman just wants to earn his mother’s love and affection, which isn’t something that’s easily attained.

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One of the more immediate conflicts they face is a former tenant named Summers, angry about losing the family motel to the bank, so he shows up later that night trying to scare the Bates, handcuffing Norma to a table and raping her before Norman provides the assist in taking him out. In trying to get rid of the body in their first mother-son murder, Norman’s mother urges him to recarpet all the rooms to get rid of the bloody stain, and that draws the attention of the local sheriff and his deputy (Nestor Carbonell, Mike Vogel) who show up to try to create some tension about whether they’ll discover the body.

Meanwhile, Norman finds a notebook with drawings of girls being chained up and tortured, which might have something to do with a secret mentioned by Summers earlier, possibly implying that the hotel was a front for some sort of white trafficking or serial killings.

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Essentially, Bates Motel is an awkward attempt at updating and modernizing the original premise for a younger audience with most of the first episode being set-up, establishing the characters around Norman and his mother. It seems like a lot of the show will take place at high school as we watch Norman becoming an outcast as the things going on at home start to affect him, but that may be the weakest part of the show. At least in the first episode, Norman’s a bit of a chick magnet, getting the attention of some of the local girls who take him out to a wild party that seems a bit more L.A. than one might expect from a small town.

One of the more interesting things touched upon is the fact that Norman has an older brother named Dylan, who was never mentioned in any of the original Psycho movies, which could add another dynamic when he comes to visit in a later episode.

Either way, you’d think a show with established actors like Highmore and Farmiga would be stronger, but their talents are mostly wasted as they tend to overact and try to make more out of the fairly bland script. Director Tucker Gates, who has done a number of episodes of Lost with series exec. producer Carlton Cuse doesn’t go very far with the gore, so the show feels tame compared to the aforementioned genre titles. Highmore tries to bring some of Perkins’ trademark quirks to the role and his version of Norman might grow on us, but at this point, it just feels forced.

After showing the entire pilot, A&E screened clips from forthcoming episodes of the series which has Normal delving further into the mysteries of the hotel in his found notebook and it looks like his mother’s going to have a little fling with Mike Vogel. While the first episode wasn’t that great, there’s definitely some potential with the series although it’s also hindered by its limitations since it’s always fairly obvious where it needs to go if you know that the end point will eventually be the moment when Janet Leigh shows up at the Bates Motel.

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