It turns out that Norman Bates was a movie geek. And Mama Bates – whose name was Norma – wasn’t a scolding frump but a hot-to-trot, if deeply disturbed, man-killer herself.
And all this time, we thought Norman was just a psychopathic mama’s boy who knocked off his mother, stuffed her corpse with his home taxidermy kit, dressed in her frumpy clothes and turned into sashimi anyone foolish enough to stay at their motel.
But no. There’s a teenage Norman at the very beginning of Monday night’s “Bates Motel” on the A&E network, watching Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” before discovering Dad’s corpse out in the garage. When he tells Mom that something is very, very wrong with Dad, she has a very nasty secret half-smile on her face so one can only assume she had something to do with it.
Later on, he alludes to the script of “Jane Eyre” – the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version – and Mama Norma gets the reference immediately. Film geeks both, then. Oh, yeah – he also listens to the Rolling Stones (“Beast of Burden”) while he does his homework.
Wait. There’s more.
Just as the Bates Motel was the original motel where guests checked in and didn’t check out (Remember the famous “Roach Motel” of ancient TV advertising?), it had a different name when Mama Norma bought the place to get away from her hubby’s corpse and their nasty old life together.
As one of Mama’s first official acts on taking possession of what we’ve all come to know as the “Psycho” house (a beloved spot on the Universal Studio tour – postcards are purchasable), she dusts off the place, throws open the windows to get some sun and decorates the joint with peonies. Yes, peonies. In the “Psycho” house.
“Bates Motel” is the strangest piece of good news to come along on TV in a long while. I must confess I had my dread.
We are now living in an era of Total Retro Exploitation. In other words, everything in pop culture that was once a success – especially a big one – will be replicated (otherwise known as “ripped off”) ad nauseam until every dram of juice has been squeezed from the kumquat, leaving only the desiccated husk of worthless memory.
So once upon a time – 1960 to be exact – Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was a diabolical masterpiece and a total game-changer in American movies. It was the very beginning of low-budget independence as a major avenue of artistic freedom, the import to American soil of the kind of freedom that Henri-Georges Clouzot had earlier in the French “Diabolique” so that Hitchcock’s American film showed grown-ups having sweaty, furtive sex in the afternoon and the film camera could watch a slip of paper refuse to flush away completely, despite the full onset swirl of water in the toilet. (Never before in movies had Americans been confronted with the business end of a humble appliance so essential to their lives.)
What could possibly be worse, we might ask, than “Psycho” as a weekly series about Norman and his Mama’s life in the “Bates Motel” during the period long before Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast met their slashing and untimely ends?
And, get this: It premieres on Monday just a few weeks before, yes, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter becomes a weekly visitor to your living room TV. (By all means, cook up some fava beans and stock up on chianti.)
It is, then, despite all of this that I tell you with no small amazement that the news with “Bates Motel” is almost good – well, it’s not unpleasantly bad anyway.
No, the mother and son we see on “Bates Motel” don’t much resemble earlier versions of the gargoyles who would later become a leather-elbowed Anthony Perkins and his stuffed Mom doll, but the TV show has rather droll touches of its own and, to its eternal credit, is played absolutely straight.
Nor, let’s remember, is its exploitative despoilment anything remotely new. Perkins himself turned “Psycho” into a “brand” (as we now call such things) and starred in all manner of sequels as a virtual annuity until he himself succumbed from AIDS.
“Bates Motel,” it turns out, is a show about a 17-year-old boy growing up in a decidedly dysfunctional single-parent family. His still-hot Mama Norma has such bad taste in business opportunities that she moves them both to the Seafarer Motel on a road just about to be abandoned by a new highway. And furthermore, she got it for a song from the bank because its previous owner – the nastiest man in town – defaulted on his debts. He hangs around hirsutely making threats and trouble until he finally just breaks in, ties up Norma and rapes her.
Whereupon Norman has to come to her rescue and, well, Mama shows how little she’s prepared to forgive hairy rapists.
Which leaves Norma and Norman to dispose of their first new corpse together. Week Two comes next week, same time, same station. (Unless you’re DVR’ing.)
My favorite feature of “Bates Motel” is this: Sweet, movie-loving, geeky Norman is portrayed as being innocent catnip for all the young teenage babes in his new home. No sooner has the kid moved in when four – count ’em, four – of the burstingly nubile little darlings are at the Bates’ front door asking Mama if Norman can come out and play. They just couldn’t think the new kid is cuter.
Since we all know Mama’s peevish Oedipal proprietary proclivities toward her own son, Norman’s sudden weird popularity with the best looking girls in town is not a cause for celebration in the Bates household.
A very, very droll touch, that. It’s what makes the show the teen draw that it obviously is but it’s also rather subtly and wickedly funny, especially since everyone involved makes dead sure that both Freddie Highmore as Norman and the great Vera Farmiga as Mom play it absolutely straight. Any winking or camping at all and it wouldn’t be nearly as funny as it turns out to be, but they both resist all the temptations.
And thereby hangs an interesting little tale.
In the age we live in, the dimwit honchos in charge of TV usually use the Demographic Imperatiive – Thou Shalt Appeal Primarily to Youth – as an excuse to dumb things down to their own low level (when, that is, they are not using it to excuse their own sinister cynicism).
The end result of this crass equation of youth with stupidity has often been a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e., young people are indeed often massively dumbed down by entertainment made for them. The result of that can be a sad increase in the amount of backward people in the world.
If one points this out in a class of young people, one runs the risk of getting them downright peevish – especially if one observes, rather blandly, that if anyone had done that to you and your friends when you were authentically young, you’d have been notably surly about the whole thing.
And that’s what I like about “Bates Motel.” There is absolutely nothing cynically dumbed down about the show, which distinguishes it completely from the exceptionally stupid recent movie about “Psycho’s” making called “Hitchcock,” which was appalling despite its fine lead performances by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Everything about “Bates Motel’s” first episode that makes it good is how cleverly the whole thing is handled (while, for instance, the “Psycho” sequels merely fattened Anthony Perkins’ bank account.)
What’s horrific remains horrific, which is why what’s funny turns out to be so funny.
It is, then, simultaneously grooved toward a teen audience and is ever-so-smart about it. You can’t catch it in the act of disrespecting its target audience at all, much less treating it with the contempt that is so loathesomely common in our era’s pop culture.
It is, then, nothing like the old roach motel. It’s actually for people, after all. If you check in on Monday, you may well be in no hurry to check out.