Introducing My Newest Guilty Pleasure: Bates Motel

What can I say? I’m utterly smitten with a TV show on A&E called Bates Motel, and I just have the urge to gush about it a little.

I’ll go ahead and clear up now that I don’t actually feel guilty about my “guilty pleasures.” I think it’s a really handy term to describe a certain type of interest, but I never actually feel ashamed of what I like. I’ve spoken pretty openly in the past about enjoying commercial fiction ranging all the way from excellent to downright trashy, defending popular novels such as 50 Shades and Twilight and people’s right to enjoy them without being publicly shamed. So when I say Bates Motel is my newest guilty pleasure, please take it with a grain of salt – and a bowl of popcorn, because, y’all, you’re going to want to watch this one.

If you’re not in the loop, this show has been pitched as a “contemporary prequel” to Alfred Hitchcock’s famous (and excellent) movie Psycho. If you’ve yet to see the original horror classic, you must. You must go get it right this moment or we can’t be friends.

Okay, so you’ve seen Psycho. Good, right? (You’re welcome.) Well this show takes the idea of a prequel and runs with it in strange and surprisingly effective directions. Part drama, part thriller, part horror, part teen love story, part… who the hell knows? There are moments of this show that almost feel like a family-friendly crowd-pleaser, and then there are moments that are downright salacious. There are moments of exquisite cinematography and stellar costumes, sets, and writing… and then there are moments of made-for-TV-movie-level melodrama and weird side-plots that don’t fit in. And the weirdest part about it all? It works. I don’t know how, but all of it works.

High-school-aged Norman Bates is portrayed by Freddie Highmore in what must be the creepy performance of the year. He is innocent, frightening, detached, soulful, and breathtakingly disturbing at turns, but most importantly he is convincing. I believe that this kid grows up to be Norman Bates in Psycho, and more surprisingly still, this knowledge makes the old classic better to me, not worse. That’s no easy feat.

As stellar as Highmore is as Norman, it’s Norman’s mother Norma (yes, Norma – played by Vera Farmiga) who truly steals the show. Farmiga is one of the most well-cast actors I can think of, and if she doesn’t win awards for her portrayal as Mrs. Bates I want to punch someone. Norma is deeply flawed and still sympathetic. I love her; I hate her; I want her to win even though, thanks to the movie, I know she doesn’t. She – like every aspect of this show – is chameleonic, tugging and playing with the viewers at every turn. She’s wholesome, conflicted, misguided, foolhardy, troubled, unsettling, and downright creepy, and she pulls off each version without a hitch.

Two stellar roles might be enough, but this show doesn’t stop there. Almost all of the supporting characters are cast just as well, and the characters are written lovingly and bravely. Olivia Cooke as Norman’s love interest is endearing and believable. Norman’s older brother Dylan is played by the nicely crush-worthy Max Thieriot – also given depth and interest. And finally, Sheriff Alex Romero (played by Nestor Carbonell) adds just the right amount of swoon and threat, alternatingly getting close to dark truths and helping the Bates’, leaving the viewer conflicted in all the right ways. (Do we even want to root for the Bates? No, but somehow I do…)

Truly, you really should see the original Psycho movie first. One of this show’s most impressive strengths is that it doesn’t overplay its hand. The makers know that we viewers know where this is all ending up. They count on you having seen the movie, and they let your own knowledge do some of the heavy lifting. Subtly is key, and implication works wonders. I’m so impressed by their respect for the source material, and even more impressed by their creative restraint when it comes to the horror aspects.

Throw on top of all this a mysterious town, a dark sense of humor that hits the spot, and an uncanny ability to balance quality and fun, and this show has me all worked up. It’s been a long time since I’ve found a TV show that I bothered to figure out when it comes on rather than just catching the episodes as they show up on my DVR. But Bates Motel? Well, I know where I’ll be on Monday night from 8-9.

Does anyone else watch this show? Do you like it as much as I do? (I know tastes vary, so don’t worry; I won’t actually throw tomatoes at you if it doesn’t suit you.) If not, what other show have you gotten caught up in lately?

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