Imagine how stressful it must have been for Carlton Cuse and his fellow “Lost” executive producers back in 2010. They had to create a finale for the biggest, most complicated puzzle TV has ever known, piecing together six fractured seasons of plots, subplots, backstories, and flash-forwards built around an overpopulated cast — and all for a fan base famous for its obsessive attention to detail.
If you were Cuse, you’d probably do what he did: Follow up “Lost” with a TV series whose ending is already firmly in place. Cuse is now an executive producer of A&E’s “Bates Motel,” which is giving us the origin story of Norman Bates, the killer at the center of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, “Psycho.” Norman’s sad fate, the conclusion of his journey of murder and broken personality, has been long embedded in film history. As Freddie Highmore portrays 17-year-old Norman, a shy kid with a few gnarly Freudian twists, the shadow of Anthony Perkins’s Norman refusing to swat a fly hangs over everything.
We know exactly where “Bates Motel” is headed; no “spoiler alert” necessary. The same goes for both NBC’s “Hannibal,” due April 4, which looks at Dr. Lecter’s pre-“Silence of the Lambs” years, and the CW’s “The Carrie Diaries,” which is giving us the post-adolescence of the “Sex and the City” heroine. We know where these planes will land: mummification, fava beans, and a nice pair of Manolo Blahniks.
Origin stories aren’t new in our culture; superhero movies have been doing them for decades, visiting and revisiting the early years of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Catwoman, and the Fantastic Four. In 1974, “The Godfather Part II” showed the transformation of Vito Corleone into a mob boss, and “Oz the Great and Powerful” is currently mining the history of Oscar “Oz” Diggs. But the popularity of exploring fictional characters before we first knew them seems to be spreading to TV. While series including “How I Met Your Mother,” “NCIS,” and “Lost” have featured single origin episodes for years, “Bates Motel,” “Hannibal,” and “The Carrie Diaries” represent a new emphasis on character beginnings.
What’s going on? On a business level, TV origin stories are an alternate approach to branding. It’s old news: Using a preexisting property helps enormously in the early marketing of a show. It’s a shortcut. The name of the product is already lodged in viewers’ minds, and there’s a built-in audience of fans. Like “Dexter,” “Hannibal” and “Bates Motel” are essentially “A Portrait of the Serial Killer as a Young Man.” But “Dexter,” which reaches back to the vigilante killer’s origins, was burdened with having to introduce central characters and concepts. It needed time to become a cultural touchstone and a hit. “Hannibal” and “Bates Motel,” whose premiere last week was a ratings success for A&E, are already familiar quantities that I can discuss here without much explanation.
But while one or two remakes of old TV shows have done reasonably well, including “Hawaii Five-0,” many have failed recently, such as “Charlie’s Angels,” “Bionic Woman,” and “Knight Rider.” Fans are attached to the original shows; often they resist the new look and cast. Origin stories, however, may not be quite as blasphemous to diehards, and they have the potential to welcome new viewers to the brand by serving as primers. The “Star Wars” prequels were a clever way to squeeze more money out of the franchise without remaking the originals, and TV wants to get in on the action.
On a creative level, though, origin stories don’t promise much for TV. I hope they don’t become a big thing. Having the ending spelled out in advance can work in a movie, or a book, but it goes against the grain of a series. A TV show needs a more enduring forward momentum than a movie, because if it’s successful it can churn out episodes for many years. Knowing the end game from the get-go takes away some of the ballast — realizing, for example, that young Carrie Bradshaw will not bring her high school friends with her into her single life as a “Sex and the City” adult makes her teen friendships seem less important and dramatically potent. “The Carrie Diaries” loses its power in the light of what we know will come after it.
Yes, knowing the end stresses the “getting there” over the destination. That’s a good thing; plot twists shouldn’t be the most vital element of a story. There ought to be value in watching “The Sixth Sense” or reading “Pride and Prejudice,” even knowing what ultimately goes down. The writing of a show, the acting, the direction, the set design, they all need to have power along the way, or else you’ve simply got a cliffhanger-abusing soap that is nothing without its plot twists. I can go back and savor episodes of, say, “Six Feet Under,” despite an awareness of where it all — and I mean all — ends. The moment-by-moment of the show is compelling.
But still, when you don’t see what’s coming, your imagination has more room to move. You can explore all kinds of possibilities as the story develops. During the years of watching “The Sopranos,” I always wondered if Tony Soprano could actually change. That seemed to be the great unanswered question suspended over the entire series: Will this guy, whose conscience may be triggering panic attacks, who is in therapy, actually ever evolve? Can you transform a sociopath? If I’d known the answer would be “no” from the start, I might have been less stimulated by the show’s bigger themes. While I can rewatch “The Sopranos” and savor the acting and writing, I can’t re-create that sense of broad curiosity.
A new CBS cop drama called “Golden Boy” is also playing with giving us the end at the beginning. In flash-forwards placed at the opening of the series, creator Nicholas Wootton let us see that the young hero, Walter William Clark Jr. (Theo James), will become the youngest-ever New York police commissioner in seven years. We are told right away that this kid, who has a lot to learn about modesty and office politics, will ultimately prevail. I like the show, but I wish I could wonder if our golden boy will stumble, or alienate too many people. The flash-forwards rob the viewer of that kind of wonder.
I don’t want to know the end, and I don’t always want backstory, either. “Lost” was critical in helping TV writers to embrace backstory, as the series struck a new and brilliant balance between moving forward and moving backward. But one of the pleasures of “Sex and the City” was how little we really understood about the backgrounds of the four main characters. We knew almost nothing about their backstories, and that made them more like TV Everywomen. Like many people living in cities, they were living in the moment, their friends serving as family. The absence of family-of-origin ties was a defining part of the show.
I wish Cuse and his “Bates Motel” colleagues luck in giving us a Norman Bates backstory that is nearly as distorted and fascinating as the one I and many others have been imagining all these years. I’ve admired the first three episodes, which play like a CW show with major psychological tweaks. But “Bates Motel,” as well as “The Carrie Diaries” and “Hannibal,” would all work the same without their connections to previous works. The source material often feels more like a PR add-on than a necessary part of the story line.