Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” has stuck with us for five decades for many reasons, not all of them having to do with a shower curtain. As film scholar David Thomson and others have noted, “Pyscho” was pure, perfect provocation marketed as being so frightening as to restrict the way ticketholders could come and go during theatrical screenings. The lasting innovation was the film’s audacity to murder its star midway through. Yet the real art of “Psycho” was in its restraint rather than its gore; what Hitchcock did not show us was just as important as what he did show.
And it’s on this very issue — when is violence too much? — that A&E’s “Bates Motel,” an inventive return to “Psycho’s” realm, very nearly had me rushing to check out and leave.
Early in the pilot episode there’s a rape scene, followed by a stabbing, that is so brutally portrayed that I mostly wanted to turn it off and become a street preacher instead of a critic. Television is beginning, at long last, to get under my skin. I saw something on “Girls” the other night that I thought could only be seen in porn movies, an act I cannot possibly describe in The Washington Post even if I wanted to. As cable shows keep pushing previous limits, I find myself revising the boundaries for what I can personally endure when it comes to either disgust or anxiety. Some of that is about me; much of it is about our culture.
But I don’t give up easily, and I’m glad I kept going with “Bates Motel,” which turns out to be a worthy reimagining of the Norman Bates story. Thus far, “Psycho” has proven resistant to sequel-izing, updating or even Gus Van Sant’s frame-for-frame homage in 1998. This has kept Norman safely away from the eternal damnation experienced by Freddy Kruger, Hannibal Lecter and other prominent psychos.
“Bates Motel” is not quite a prequel, though it acts like one. Set in the modern day, it follows a 17-year-old Norman (Freddie Highmore) through events that, we assume, will eventually turn him into a killer who obeys the phantom voice of his dead mother. For now, he’s a sweet kid with an unhealthy attachment to his overprotective — and very much alive — mom, Norma (Vera Farmiga). Highmore and Farmiga are perfectly cast, immediately elevating the show’s potential. Highmore’s sympathetic and vulnerable take on Norman fittingly honors and then amplifies Anthony Perkins’s original role.
After the accidental (yeah, right) death of Mr. Bates, Norma and Norman take the insurance money and leave Arizona (a nice parallel for “Psycho” fans) and move to the Oregon coast in search of a new life. Norma has purchased, at foreclosure, an old motel on the highway. The property comes with a house — you’ll recognize it.
Mother and son optimistically set about prepping the motel for new business, but it’s not long before they get mired in the muck. Feel free to fast-forward through the scene where the nasty former owner of the place attacks and rapes Norma and she then stabs him about 20 times; as I've said, the scene is unnecessarily graphic and detrimental to the otherwise artful story that producers Carlton Cuse (of “Lost” fame) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) attempt to launch here. As it blips by, take a moment to marvel at how inured we’ve become since Janet Leigh screamed her head off in 1960.
In a panic, Norma persuades poor Norman to help her dump the body in a lake. This grisly errand seals and distorts the intimate secrets that mother and son share. It also invites the menacing presence of the town sheriff (“Lost’s” Nestor Carbonell), who is now hunting for the missing man.
Some essential parts of “Bates Motel” are just right, especially its spooky mood and the way it metes out hints of several mysteries at once; besides Highmore and Farmiga, the story improves with the arrival of Norman’s abusive older brother Dylan (Max Thieriot), a ne’er-do-well who quickly finds work as a thug in the town’s underground pot-farming operation.
Norman tries to fit in at his new high school, but he’s more transfixed by the lurid bondage-themed manga sketchbook he discovers while pulling up old carpet in the motel. A new friend at school (Olivia Cooke) helps him translate the writings in the journal, which sends them on a sleuthing trip in the woods, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew-style. Here is where “Bates Motel” starts to take on sinister shades of “The Killing,” where even the aw-shucks deputy (Mike Vogel) who has the hots for Norma is hiding a darker truth. Everyone in town is a psycho.
Even if the notion delighted him, I’m not sure Alfred Hitchcock would have known where to take a story about international sex-trafficking, so it’s up to us to sort it out and determine if we want to stay at “Bates Motel” or keep driving. I’m going to check in and take a shower. I have a feeling I’ll regret it in a couple more episodes, but I need the rest, and there’s something oddly comforting about all these creeps.
(one hour) premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on A&E.