…all of which occur, not necessarily in that order.
What if a network made a dark crime show and didn’t make it about the crime(s)? There would be crime, yes, because you can’t really have a dark show without something dark occurring and anyone who ever took an intro sociology course about deviant behavior1 knows that our conceptions of darkness rely on the idea of transgressing against a societal norm as much as anything else. What if, and I’m just spitballing here, those societal norms violated ranged from murder to drug dealing to sex slavery to political corruption to sexual impropriety along many different lines of relationships? Surely a series packing all that into ten episodes would be carried along by the crimes, or perhaps the criminals.
Bates Motel is not, and it took me forever to understand that is both why I watch the show and why I can’t explain to anyone why I watch the show. Sense of ennui aside, it is well acted, populated with three dimensional (if Escher-esque) characters, well-shot, and nicely dim without becoming pitch black. Drawing from the barest thread of the main character in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho2 – and utilizing the iconic house effectively as a central set – Bates Motel follows Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore, playing normal, psychopathic, and American equally well) and his high-strung-to-say-the-least mother Norma (Vera Farmiga, getting to do all of the emotions, and do them well) to White Pine Bay, Pacific Northwest3 and ownership of a run down motel. White Pine Bay is largely kept afloat by illegal drug production – a nearly open secret amongst its denizens – and at least two rival gangs keep an unstable peace via continual reprisals while the sheriff keeps things as calm as he can.
But that’s not the plot of the show. There are plots, yes, and we’ll get to them, but the protagonist of this dark crime show is neither cop nor, primarily, crook. He’s a teenager with some sort of dissociative disorder4 who is standing in the middle of a huge swirl of pressures – many quite common, some less so – and the show is really about how Norman’s terrifying under-self reacts. The potential for violence, or even hurt, his or others, underlies many an exchange. We know Norman is a psychopath. We don’t know what that means for his seemingly mercurial responses to various situations. Norma, who is one of those pressures herself, similarly stands, bends, and bows to her own pressures, similarly unpredictably.
Such a concept dances a difficult line. The unpredictability is what keeps things interesting, but if things become random then it’s just… random. Too little action, or too little agency from the main characters, and you’re now relying on mood and tropes to make us care. Season 1 danced that line well; season 2 shows more of the same. The inherent danger that Norman (and even Norma) poses is presented without hamminess, barely supported by mood music, and emphasized by enticing glimpses into fantasy worlds. The writing and directing both properly utilize the briefness of all these explanations, and rely (justifiably) on the performers rather than plot actions to move things along enough so nothing stagnates (the series moves at a pace somewhere between deliberate and slow, which may madden some viewers.)5
The concept would not survive its occasional dalliances into side plots, and probably not get far at all, were it not for the actors. Credit must be given to Olivia Cooke as Emma, the nice girl with a crush on Norman and cystic fibrosis making her acceptable to Norma6; there’s nary a false note here from moment one. Strong support also comes from turns by two great character actors, Jere Burns7 and Nestor Carbonell.8
If anything, Bates Motel pulls a few punches in its presentation – it doesn’t need to be Hannibal, but touches like the brief, never-again mentioned (or topped) human effigy in the city’s center (part of the gang war) keep the threat of the environment present, and take a bit of the load off of the willing and able cast. It shows rather than tells, which is always a good thing. Now the trick is to keep finding interesting ways to show the ever-present darkness.
Bates Motel is now playing on A&E and Hulu. Season 1 is available on Netflix Watch Instant. Article posted two episodes into season 2.
- I didn’t. ↵
- The setting is years before the events of the movie, whether or not the series ever heads towards said events. ↵
- If the show ever distinctly said they were in Washington or Oregon, I missed it. ↵
- I also did not take psychology. ↵
- If you watch the first two episodes and don’t like what you learn (or don’t learn) about this world, skip the series; it’s going to be more of that same ↵
- No, really – Farmiga turns on a dime during an impromptu, friendly-seeming interrogation of Emma to ask point blank ‘what’s your life expectancy’, and then wordlessly lets the reply (27ish) register and tell us tons about Norma, loving mother and awesome person. ↵
- In full on ‘What? I’m not creepy!’ mode. ↵
- Although for f’s-sake someone please ask this man whose performances I typically love to open his mouth when he speaks – I have the subtitles on almost entirely because of him. ↵