And Vera Farmiga is more than up to the task. The first half of the episode makes her out to be a manipulative and devilish matriarch (the sly and knowing smile she cracks coming out of the shower during the opening scene made me immediately love her as a villain), going so far as to become jealous of her son spending time after school. I really hope the show has the guts to go to some truly demented places with Norma Bates, because if this pilot episode is any indication, she may be the sole reason to watch the show.
I was extremely excited when I learned Freddie Highmore would be stepping into the role made famous by Anthony Perkins over half a century ago. He had the right physicality, and his sweet demeanor seemed like a perfect fit for the quiet man-child who eventually gets really into cross-dressing and stabbing naked ladies. Sadly, Highmore may be underplaying things a bit too much, especially when standing next to the serpentine Farmiga. This doesn't seem like a show that's going to be reaching for subtlety, so while I respect Highmore's devotion to the mannerisms and attitude Perkins cultivated, he's going to have to bring more of himself to the role if he wants to stay interesting. The few seconds we see Norman enraged (again, the opening may have the best tiny moment where he starts kicking the bathroom door. Just a small indicator of how intense Norman can get) are easily the best parts of Highmore's performance.
My biggest complaint is the reboot aspect of the show. While the Bates family and their immediate surroundings seem perfectly ripped from an America of yesteryear, the show takes place in a timeless present day. Norman has an iPhone and goes to an almost cheesy version of a "high school party." Oooooooo, blacklights! I think the show's creators missed a great opportunity to go fully period with this, and they almost seem to know it. They want to have all the visual trappings of a 40's and 50's aesthetic, but also want to have dopey high school drama to reel in the younger demographic. It does make them less beholden to any sort of continuity, but it also creates this disconnect between Norman's homelife and the outside world. Maybe that's what the creators were going for, but if so, it doesn't work.
There's also a lot of really, really bad dialogue in this first episode. The actors do what they can with it, but most of the lines sound so clunky and forced that it took me completely out of the moment. I hope they have a few writers on board who are proficient just in dialogue, because the show will becoming grating very quickly if I can't even listen to what the characters are saying.
Speaking of characters, it's also a shame that absolutely no one in this episode besides the two leads is remotely interesting. None of Norman's eventual schoolmates (random oxygen-machine girl at the end wins the, "Ha! Okay, then..." award of the show) are anything but two-dimensional, and the one possible foil we're introduced to (the original owner of the motel and house the Bates have bought from the bank) is dispatched almost immediately.
And let's talk about that dispatching for just a moment. If you're this far in, you should be smart enough to realize that there will be spoliers. Consider yourself warned.
The rape of Norma Bates made me hang my head with disappointment. The only reason it even exists is to try and engender the audience with some sort of sympathy towards Norma, who up to this point has been nothing but a controlling and suspiciously malevolent character. We know she had something to do with her husband's death (see: sly and knowing smile) and there have been enough undertones presented to key us in on her likely incestuous feelings toward her son. Up until her rape, there is absolutely no reason to like Norma Bates as a human being. But, she was being enjoyable as a villain. Having to manufacture this kind of base sentiment is lazy writing, and comes off as an attempt to have a "shocker" moment in the pilot. It doesn't help that her rapist is stereotyped as an oily, hairy man-pig, going so far as to tell Norma, "You liked it," right after he's been incapacitated. Her murder of him (while nicely staged and appropriately gooey) doesn't make me sympathize with her. It just makes me wary of what other bad tricks the writers have in store to make us feel something nice towards Norma. I don't want to feel nice about her! I want her to be exactly what she was before the rape: Lady MacBeth in yellow dish-washing gloves.
The other big part of the show (that I purposefully saved for last, since it's the thing I'm least interested in) seems like it's going to be setting up some other serial killer who is tying up women and injecting them with...something. Norman finds a sketchbook underneath the carpet in one of the motel rooms with drawings of girls tied up and being injected with...something. If this is going to be some over-arching mystery for the whole season, my fast-forward button could be getting worn down over the next few weeks. The only interesting place this could go would be Norman finding out who the killer is and somehow bonding with him, sewing the seeds of more sinister behavior to come. If Norman ends up playing the shining knight, I don't know if I can stick around.
Even though there's a lot of misfiring going on in this pilot, there's still enough to stay with the ship. Vera Farmiga alone is honestly worth the price of admission. If Highmore can reach an equally enjoyable performance, then all the silliness surrounding them will be tolerable. I hope Bates Motel has nowhere to go but up. The premise alone is a great one (a motel allows for a plethora of disposable plotlines and interesting guest stars) and the principal characters can be mined for a lot of really fun, dark drama. The show needs to prove it has some teeth, or things will get stale before we see our first shower drain.