Wednesday, April 3, 2013
TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 3 - "What's Wrong With Norman"
Last week, I had accepted the defeated position that Bates Motel was not going to be the show I wanted it to be. Instead, I decided to embrace the soapy and overwrought nature of the material as best as I could. With just the third episode, Bates Motel is trying my patience even in the realms of trashy pulp nonsense (until the ending, which we'll get to).
Just as I had feared, Dylan's adventures in rural Crimetown are the worst kind of filler: they advance practically nothing of the plot and service no one but him. And surprise, he's still not interesting in the least. Even his little attempt to bond with Norman comes off as forced. I can't believe it's only taken two episodes for me to be completely over a character. Unless things take a drastic and heavily dramatic turn for him, I will easily crown Dylan the worst aspect of this series.
Even Vera Farmiga feels tired in this episode. Her usual sly looks and dark demeanor are almost nonexistent this week. When your show's secret weapon is faltering, the whole ship is in danger of sinking.
I don't know if it's just me, but I find it really hard to like any of the secondary cast in this show. Norman's two love interests are such stereotypes that they feel plucked from some MTV teen drama. Both Bradley and Emma are given goofy lines and are such one-note characters that there's only one way they'll become interesting: if they are murdered by Norman.
And now we get to the one part of this episode that (while not completely a triumph) is at least intriguing and somewhat compelling: Norman. His obsession with his Chinese murder book causes him to faint in class, whilst having visions of his teacher bound with rope. Now we're in some Psycho territory! He's admitted to the hospital and during this time, the local sheriff obtains a search warrant (somehow for some reason. Who cares? DRAMA!) for the Bates house. This is when Norman has to divulge to his mother that he kept the belt from the body they disposed. Fearing that the police have found it, Norma meets up with Deputy Do Good in an effort to squeeze some info out of him, and finds out that Officer Nice Guy hid the belt from the police in order to protect Norma. By now, Norman has returned home from the hospital (thanks to Norma forcibly checking him out) and is anxiously waiting for his mother to come home. Dylan tries to give Norman some advice but doesn't manage to connect with his half-brother.
Then, one little exchange plants the seeds of an entire season's worth of plotting: Dylan apologizes for fighting with Norman and for Norman almost killing him with a meat tenderizer. What does Norman say? He doesn't remember that. We now cannot trust anything that happens from Norman's point of view (although we actually can, much to the writer's chagrin. More on that in just a sec), and that is compounded even more near the end of the episode when the truly big "reveal" happens: Norman hallucinates his mother telling him that he has to go and retrieve the belt.
This one scene gives me extremely mixed feelings. Noticed that I say mixed, not definitively bad or good. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of material I wanted from the show: the discovery and revelation of Norman Bates as a serial killer that is "powered" by his (eventually dead) mother's influence. And the scene between them is the best Freddie Highmore has done at being creepy so far. However, while this makes Norman more interesting as a character, the side effect is that it has the potential to demystify and actually soften Norma as the domineering figure we've known her to be. Is it really Norma who drives her son to become the monster he is destined to be, or is it actually Norman's perception of his mother? The performance Vera Farmiga gives as the vision Norman sees is exactly the Norma Bates we came to be familiar with through the original film. So will the real Norma actually end up being more sympathetic? That seems like a missed opportunity at showing us one of the greatest unseen villains in cinema history. But, Norma has been shown to be the manipulative and controlling figure we expect in the very first episode. I'm very excited at seeing Norman start to spiral into his eventual insanity, but if it comes at the cost of his actual mother's wickedness...I don't know if that's the best trade-off.
Anyway, Norman goes to the cop's house and looks for the belt, only to find that the guy has a porn dungeon in his basement and...a Chinese girl? Wow! They've already given us the answer to that plotline? Fantastic and honestly surprising! I'm very pleased that we weren't going to drag out all season with the mystery of Injector Man, but guess what? Now that Norman is "seeing things", we're going to get a whole episode that discredits his discovery when we all know it's the truth. Ugh. Just when you've given me hope, Bates Motel, you make me dread your next move.
Even with all of its meandering blandness, I still feel this is a good show going through its birthing pains. When the show keeps Norman and his mother at the forefront, things at least have some momentum. And when you give particular focus to one of them (in this case Norman), there is some real meat to digest, even if some of it may not be fully cooked (Can you tell I'm anxious for that other horror prequel show starting tomorrow?). Bates Motel, stop flopping around town and just be the show your title promises: A show about the crazy family Bates (Dylan excluded, please). You'll be much more fun to watch.