Friday, March 29, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 2 - "Nice Town You Picked, Norma..."

I've resigned myself to the fact that Bates Motel is not going to be the show I expected it to be. Instead of a serious examination of what turns an innocent child into a monster, this is a soap opera through and through. That's not necessarily a bad thing (we'll get to some of the glee-inducing trashiness later), but it would be easier to swallow if there weren't tiny hints of something really smart and seductive popping up here and there. All of that has to do with Norma and Norman's relationship (the reason any Psycho fan has tuned in), and it's a shame the show's creators seem more interested in every other possible plotline they've come up with. With this episode, Bates Motel has said that the titular location isn't going to be what drives the stories, but rather the town Norma and her son have moved to. While that can provide plenty of wacky and nasty diversions, it doesn't feel very original. A town with a secret (or in this case what seems to be HUNDREDS of secrets) is an old plot device, while the concept of using the motel to wheel in various mysteries and characters seemed fresh. I'm sure that will still end up happening, but with the current setup in place, it'll only over-complicate a show that's already weighing itself down with too much.

I don't want to sound like I'm completely down on the show, so let's look at what's really good about this episode. Like I said before, anything where just Norma and Norman are together is great. The highlight is easily the comfortably disturbing scene where Norma changes in front of her son and assures him that her "date" with the local deputy is nothing more than a strategic maneuver, helping to keep the cops from discovering the body they recently disposed of. The little looks they give each other, the casual demeanor about familial sexuality, and the devotion bordering on control are all perfectly executed in this one little scene. I also love seeing the two of them scrubbing the kitchen clean, looking completely innocent while covering up a dastardly deed. If the show focused on more moments like these, it'd be more like the show I signed up for.

The other fun bit comes at the end, when we get to see what "justice" looks like in the town of White Pine Bay. I'll never bemoan seeing a flaming corpse on television, and this one is a nice bit of spectacle. Crazy little things like this are what the show is going to need to keep it afloat amidst its sea of subplots.

Now, let's get into some of these subplots. Obviously, the biggest one is the addition of big brother (well, stepbrother) Dylan. While I really dig the idea of Norma having a son that she feels practically nothing for (and him feeling the same way), I wish I could feel anything at all for Dylan. Max Theiriot is trying way too hard when it comes to Dylan's "don't give a shit" rebel attitude. Not helping the matter is that Dylan is nothing but a dickbag who only cares about money, but then the writers want us to feel bad for him simply because "he has nowhere else to go." His adventures into the criminal underworld of White Pine Bay are something I'm dreading, since it will require me to give a shit about a guy who... doesn't give a shit. When he pretty much blackmails Norma into letting him stay, it's fairly obvious that the show is trying to craft a more intimate foil for Norma, and that just doesn't work. Maybe it would if the foil was interesting.

However, Dylan does provide Norman with one of his best scenes yet. When Norman find out that Dylan has Norma listed in his phone as "The Whore", Norman attacks his older stepbrother and gets promptly shut down. Then comes the real gem of the scene: Norman spots a meat tenderizer near the sink. Any other show would just leave it at that, implying the murderous urge and setting it up for later. Not Bates Motel! Norman immediately grabs the hammer and lunges at Dylan again! He doesn't connect and ends up down on the floor, venomously stating, "She's not a whore." It's in these darker, more vicious moments that Freddie Highmore is selling me on his version of Norman Bates.

What I'm not buying into is the sweet Norman and his high school hijinks. Now that he's been partnered Hardy Boys-style with classmate Emma (whose cystic fibrosis will certainly be used for a ticking clock scenario once she gets abducted by Injection Man), I'm officially checked out of that storyline. It feels like it belongs on a whole other show, and to help complicate matters even more is when the mystery they are investigating gets interrupted by another town secret: someone's making money off of a seriously huge marijuana farm. Geez, Bates Motel. Should I be expecting aliens and the Devil to pop up eventually? You need to tighten the stories you've got before piling up more and more eventual mysteries. Could Carlton Cuse's Lost influence already be at play?

There's a couple little tidbits to like as well. Norman's first interaction with taxidermy is a plus, and since Emma's dad is the local animal corpse stuffer, expect Norman to take up some kind of apprenticeship with him, leading into more knowledge about the town and its dirty dealings. Vera Farmiga proves she's still the show's main draw, playing the doe-eyed deputy like a harp from hell. I could watch a whole episode of just her being salaciously conniving.

If the show remains as all over the place as this episode, fatigue could set in pretty quick. A little bit of focus goes a long way, and if this upcoming episode seems to be as Norman-centric as its title would imply, maybe things will get a bit tighter. The wackiness is keeping me intrigued, it just needs to be channeled more efficiently. Also, don't be afraid to let Freddie Highmore let loose. There's gold to be mined in those moments.


  1. I'm still holding out for this show to get better. It's not bad by any means, just not quite what I was expecting. The meat tenderizer thing was awesome though. I thought Norman was going to kill Dylan right then.

    1. If only he had!

      I think if you accept that it's going to be a soap opera featuring a few characters from the "Psycho" mythology, it'll be enjoyable, or at the very least tolerable. I just hope the show channels its focus onto Norma and Norman as things play out. I don't care very much (if at all, right now) about all the other townies and their mysteries.