“Psycho,” Alfred Hitchock’s 1960 thriller, had very strong Freudian currents running through it. So it’s not surprising that its new prequel series on A&E is steeped in what we’d now call the “inappropriate” mother-son bond between Norman and Norma Bates. They don’t have incestuous sex, at least not in the three episodes sent for review. But they do share a few aching glances and flirtatious overtones. They also share secret knowledge of one, and possibly two, murders, with young Norman quoting expressions of love from “Jane Eyre” to Norma as they dispose of a corpse. Their bond is deep and deeply twisted.
“Bates Motel,” which premieres Monday at 10, is sufficiently creepy, and not only due to the possessive attachment between mother and son, whom one character refers to as “Mr. and Mrs. Bates.” The show’s creators, Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”), bring in what promises to be a chilling and dramatic origins story about exactly what preceded the movie. They’ve done a smart job of building a cryptic, threatening world around the disturbing relationship at its center. Among the “Bates” plot points: a rape, fields of pot, Norman’s violent half-brother, the possibility of human trafficking, a nosy cop, and . . . well, most of it is best discovered along the way.
Cuse and Ehrin have made a bold choice in setting “Bates Motel” in the here and now, rather than going back to the 1950s. And it works, for the most part, because they’ve still infused the musty old motel off the old highway in a coastal Oregon town with the Gothic tones of the movie. It all has a vaguely “Twin Peaks”-ian feel; the show looks like a hybrid of the dated and the contemporary, and the citizens of White Pine Bay reveal themselves to be rather cagey. Also, the present tense keeps the story line from becoming too closely entwined with the movie that spawned it. You could watch “Bates Motel” without having seen “Psycho” and without knowing where it’s all going. You don’t need to understand the winking significance of having us first meet Norma (Vera Farmiga) coming out of a bathroom — something Janet Leigh didn’t accomplish in the movie.
Of course, that raises the question: Why bother linking the TV series to “Psycho” at all? Why not just make a modern drama that unfolds without a predetermined end, a sort of teen romance-horror show starring Freddie Highmore as a curiously introverted high school kid named Tyler or Ryan rather than Norman Bates? Cynic alert: brand recognition and marketing. It’s much easier to sell a product that is connected to an iconic Hitchcock film than it is to sell, say, “White Pine Bay.” More people will most likely be curious about this show than put off by its link to one of Hitchcock’s sacred texts.
The story begins with the untimely death of Norman’s father, which propels Norma to move to Oregon with Norman, 17, and make a fresh start with the dilapidated motel and the towering house behind it. Quickly, “Bates Motel” delivers a very hard-to-watch rape and violent murder that will inevitably alienate some viewers. The scenes push the boundaries of today’s standards of TV violence in the way the movie did back in 1960. Hitchcock knew what not to show, to ignite our imaginations; but still, “Psycho” was a new level of terror punch for viewers of the time. Nothing that comes after that violence in the first episode of “Bates Motel” is nearly as savage, and if you can make it to episode 2, you will find a show that relies more on menace and mystery than brutality and gore.
Highmore is just right as Norman. He’s got a retro face, which can travel from smirky to furtive to frightened without much bluster. You can see his innocence starting to darken. He gets involved with two very different girls in his class. Emma (Olivia Cooke) is literary and has cystic fibrosis, which prompts Norma to inquire about her life expectancy. And Bradley (Nicola Peltz) is a prettier girl whose father is involved in some local dirty doings.
I’m less convinced by Farmiga, who doesn’t seem to have a strong fix on Norma’s motivations. She seems almost too nice, or too calm, to be as shifty and damaged as she is. In episode 2, Max Thieriot shows up with lot of interestingly conflicted energy as Dylan, Norma’s older son from a relationship with a different man than Norman’s father. Initially, he presents himself as a bitter seed who caustically calls his mother “Norma” and bullies his half-brother. But he is also needy, and possibly jealous of the closeness between Norma and Norman.
I should stress that “Bates Motel” isn’t for everyone, and not only because of the violence. The show offers little in the way of triumph, as least so far. If there are sweet moments, they are tinged with eeriness. And we know where this whole thing is ultimately headed, don’t we, and redemption is definitely not in the picture.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.