Tonight marks the end of A&E’s surprise hit Bates Motel, a show that upon announcement may not have sounded like a great idea (didn’t we already learn that you shouldn’t remake Psycho?), but ultimately proved naysayers wrong with five seasons of solid drama and a unique place in television history, proving that with the right amount of care and passion for the source material, and a talented team behind the project, any idea could be worth a shot.
Now, I won’t go into a whole history of how or why Bates Motel came into fruition. For those full details please check out our very own Chris Ripley’s book, Psychos: The Story of the Psycho Film Franchise. What does interest me is that around the time Bates Motel first premiered, it carried a lot of baggage, which should’ve led to instant failure. Not only was the show yet another remake of Psycho, a franchise that was seemingly dead after the 1998 Gus Van Sant remake, but the show also premiered during a period of time where television networks were developing a number of shows – to varying levels of success – that were either adaptations of classic movies (Fargo, Parenthood), re-imaginings of horror properties (From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series, Rosemary’s Baby), or modern-day retellings of either (Sleepy Hollow, The Exorcist). Bates Motel falls into ALL THREE categories.
Despite the baggage, Bates Motel premiered on March 18th, 2013 on A&E. The show was a surprise hit, maintaining an audience of approximately 2.70 million viewers in its first season. A respectable amount for a scripted drama on a network primarily known for its biographies and reality programming.
But why does the show work? Sure, name recognition and general curiosity might get an audience to check out the pilot, but where many new shows oftentimes suffer a drastic dip in ratings from the first to second episode, what made that audience come back week after week for five years? The answer, I think, is that the show is more than just a rehash of the films that came before it, and the quality of the performances are of the highest caliber.
Being the latest remake to Psycho is no easy feat, but expanding that story into a long-form narrative with multiple new plot threads, new original characters, while still remaining faithful to the original material (both the Hitchcock film and the novel) is damn near impossible. Bates Motel did the smart move of being both a respectable remake while also expanding the mythology and creating characters that were more than just disposable puppets waiting to be killed off. And while not every new character and plot thread was a home run (Bradley’s return, the marijuana farm subplot), the show always did of good job of righting itself and rewarding viewers who stuck with the series.
That’s not to say that all the adjustments on the show were the result of course correction. In fact, one of the best decisions Bates Motel made was in realizing what a captivating actor Nestor Carbonell (“Sheriff Romero”) was, a fact that fans of the television series Lost or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight may already know. This is evident in the show promoting Carbonell from a supporting player to a series regular at the start of the second season.
Speaking of the performances, there would be no Bates Motel without the lead players: Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother, Norma. Amidst the multiple plot lines, the show’s main through line and primary narrative has always been the exploration of the relationship between the mother and son Bates and how that relationship yields the birth of a psychopath. That story and those characters, especially Norman, would be tough rolls to embody, especially considering the role was arguably already played to perfection with Anthony Perkins’ portrayal in the original Hitchcock film. Speaking as a fan of the film and Perkins’ performance, I was won over by Highmore’s performance fairly quickly. As a young child actor, Freddie Highmore was no stranger to giving great performances, having starred alongside Johnny Depp in both Finding Neverland and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The innocence displayed in those two performances, specifically, were a perfect fit for Highmore’s interpretation of Norman Bates, a character who appears as a mild-mannered and collected innocent young man on the outside, but a monster with a bloodlust on the inside.
Vera Farmiga’s Norma Bates is equally complex, and Farmiga clearly has a blast playing a role and bringing to life a part that was originally only portrayed as a skeleton in the Hitchcock film. Her Norma is equal parts haunting, sympathetic, funny, sexy, and absolutely terrifying, and Farmiga captures all aspects of the character with nary a misstep.
What Bates Motel proved is that just because a movie is a classic doesn’t mean that it’s untouchable. Psycho was a landmark picture in the history of film, but in the current state of remakes and re-imaginings, it may not always be a terrible idea to go back to the well. Sure, oftentimes these revisits don’t work. For every Dawn of the Dead (2004), we get about fifty Red Dawns (2012). But sometimes, when made with the best of intentions and with a clear purpose and direction, you can breathe new life into an existing property. And if you’re successful, you’ll make audiences want to check out the original property. So pick up a copy of the novel Psycho by Robert Bloch, watch the Hitchcock original, and tune in to A&E tonight at 10pm for the series finale of Bates Motel. Will Norman kill again? I doubt it. Why, he wouldn’t even hurt a fly.
Bates Motel’s first four seasons are currently available to stream on Netflix.