John Ary here with an early look at the new Psycho prequel series from A&E.
I had the chance to catch the pilot at SXSW and was fairly underwhelmed. The story takes place in modern day, with a seventeen year old Norman and his mother purchasing a foreclosed property on the outskirts of a small California town. Bates Motel tries to take on a sinister vibe, with characters giving unexplained creepy nods to each other, a b-story possibly involving the motel's connection to drugs and human trafficking, and uncomfortable embraces between a mother and son that tend to feel a bit incestuous. We've seen most of this done better before in shows like Twin Peaks and Dexter.
On the plus side, the production design feels faithful to the original Psycho. Our first steps inside the Bates house as the camera peers down on Norman and his mother from the top of the staircase gave me a brief geekgasm.
Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore do their best with a troubled script that tends to play coy with the dread while overstating practically every character trait and motivation. Also the action feels a bit forced. One of the two big moments of tension involve three characters standing around inside a small motel room while another urinates in a bathroom. It's a big motel. Did he HAVE to use that particular bathroom? Did the other three character HAVE to stand around making small talk while he loudly hit the head? Not really.
The pilot left me with a feeling of wanting more, but not in a good way. I want more characters, more action, more showing and less telling. Will the discovery of a mysterious hand-drawn manga torture porn notebook inside one of the motel rooms be enough to lure me back from episode 2? Probably not.