Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel (source: A&E)
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel (source: A&E)

Bates Motel: Monday’s at 10p.m., A&E.

Throughout the history of the horror genre, we’ve seen our fair share of notable villains. From Jigsaw of Saw who simply sees self-mutilation as the means to appreciating one’s life for the better, to the seemingly immortal Michael Myers of Halloween fame to Jason Voorhees at Camp Crystal Lake, we see the end result of years of psychological illness in the form of a machete and some poor misguided co-eds.

However, Bates Motel asks, what turns these people into our most beloved serial killers? It does so by following around iconic slasher Norman Bates during his teenage years in a prequel to the Alfred Hitchcock classic. This means we will get a glimpse into Norman’s family life, as Norman was always horror’s preeminent mama’s boy.

Our first episode revolves around Norman moving to White Pine Bay and getting adjusted into this new location, trying to get a new start six months after the death of his father. Norman is the sort of nice shy boy that girls seem to take to fairly easily, and his teachers want him to get involved in the school’s athletics (particularly the track team). His mother Norma however, is guilt-tripping him at every turn, claiming she needs him at the Motel all the time. This eventually leads to Norman sneaking out of his house to go to study only to end up at a house party.

The second subplot revolves around a man whom returns to the plot Norma bought in order to “take back his property”. While Norman is out at said party, the man returns, trying to rape Norma. Norman walks in at the last second and smashes him over the head with a iron, which leads to Norma killing him soon thereafter before spending a day or two figuring out where to stuff the body and hiding it from the cops (one of the best whimsical moments of the pilot involved the Sheriff giving Norma a puzzled look as to why she named her son after herself).

The main pairing of Norman and his overbearing mother Norma Louise Bates (as played by Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga respectively) are both played excellently, particularly Farmiga as Norma Louise Bates, playing the sort of unsettling, unstable, mother that leads a man down the road to insanity. Norman is played as a sweet gawky teenager who hasn’t been completely down the road to ruin. Both however, are played with the sort of subdued nature required to sustain a prequel show like this for multiple seasons, and the development of both of those characters over time will be a key factor to the show’s success.

The writers do an excellent job mixing not only the mundane moments that are necessary at the start of the series to establish character, but also providing tension where it does pop up, whether it’s Norman’s discovery of his father’s death or the very intense rape/murder scene that occurs in the middle of the episode. In spite of that, the show makes it a priority to let these moments breathe, as it’s most truly unsettling parts come from Norma’s reaction to both situations (and some lesser ones such as Norman’s request to join the track team).

The soundtrack to this show also is pretty impressive, following the classic horror soundtrack that one would expect from a series built around one of horror’s most psychotic characters. Soft piano music plays through happier segments, while your standard horror strings move through the tense parts. The visuals are equally impressive, often relying a palette of beiges, and yellows to provide a quaint feeling.

The Final Verdict: Bates Motel is everything that a show like The Following wishes it could be. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, and it’s most intense moments are frankly uncomfortable enough that it eschews the jump scares. It ultimately feels like one part Smallville, one part Twin Peaks, and one part any twisted family drama you can think of. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.