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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  • Regina Richards

    I’ve never watched this show, but I may need to check it out now.

  • We get things late here, but now I’m really looking forward to seeing this show. My guilty pleasure is Teen Wolf. In every episode they manage to end on a game-changing plot twist. I’d love to be able to write like that!

    • Oh, that does sound like a fun guilty pleasure. I’ve never watched Teen Wolf. Hm…

      • OT just to let you know I read all your Ask Annie Twitter info at Writer Unboxed. Very helpful – thanks!

  • jclementwall

    Holy cow! This is an amazing review. I think I saw Bates Motel on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I will definitely watch it, and since I just finished Walking Dead, this is perfect! Thanks, Annie!

  • Peggy

    VERY interesting! I was so intrigued that I looked & found it on Netflix. I watched just a few minutes of the 1st episode and decided I would wait until I can watch it with my sweetie:) Creepy!!!!

    • Awesome! I bet you’ll like it — let me know what you think!

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    This sounds like amazing characters but I wonder if I can take it (you know what a wimp I am… I might watch from under a blanket, haha). Have you seen Forever? Have only seen a couple episodes but it’s intriguing…

    • Oh, I think you can, Julia! The show is very creepy, but (so far) not *scary.* The creepiness comes from the weirdness between Norman and Norma’s relationship, and there’s been some high action, but no outright scary scenes. I’d say give it a try if it sounds good to you!

      I’ve never heard of Forever. Is it one I should look into?

  • Cynthia Robertson

    We can be friends, Annie – I’ve seen the original Psycho, and what’s more it ruined showers for me for YEARS. Lol!

    Bates Motel just got on my list of potentially neato series to watch over the scorching summer months, when we hold up in Arizona and wait out the heat. Nice review.

    P.S. Cool word: chameleonic 🙂

    • Haha, yay! I’ve had a clear shower curtain ever since I saw that movie. (Because seeing it coming is better somehow? lol) Thanks Cynthia!

  • Carie Juettner

    You’ve certainly gotten my attention! Question: What season is it in? I don’t have cable, so I’ll have to watch it on Netflix or check it out from the library. In the meantime, I’ll be re-watching Psycho so I’m ready. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • It’s currently in its third season; I think the first two might be on Netflix! I bet you’ll love it, Carie. 🙂

      • Peggy

        Yes, I saw that it’s on Netflix. I’m just too chicken to watch it alone.

        • It’s not super scary! It’s creepy, but more in a “yikes” kind of way than a “bundle up and cringe” kind of way, if that makes sense. I watch it alone every time and I’m a scaredy cat!

          • A. B. Davis

            Bundle up and cringe! LOL That is exactly what I did last night on the seasons 2 finale! So many moments of that.

          • Yeah, I guess it’s both. Let me rephrase: I was never *scared.* I was *disturbed.* It’s less like “Oh will something jump out at me?” and more “Eeeeeew that’s creepy/awesome.” 🙂

          • A. B. Davis

            I knew you meant the disturbed by the bundle up and cringe. And no lies, I literally hugged myself and held the sleeve of my sweater to my mouth–as though to protect myself from the depravity of it all, the salaciousness, if you will!–and cringed. But as much as you want to look away in those moments, you can’t. It’s just so…alien, so controversial, and deliciously rife with complexes of the Oedipal nature.

          • Yep, it’s juicy as hell! Haha! I love it.

  • Melissa D

    There are very few shows i actually get caught up in. Bates motel is one of them. This show could have been horrible but it turned out to be well done i catch it every Monday. The only other shows i keep up with are The Returned following Bates Motel on Mondays and AMCs the Walking Dead on Sundays and Better Call Saul also on Mondays. Monday nights have a lot of good entertainment these days

    • You’re so right; it *could* have been horrible so easily, but they pull it off! I’ve seen several commercials for The Returned and it looks very interesting, but I gave up on The Walking Dead a few seasons ago. I’ve heard great things about Better Call Saul!

      • A. B. Davis

        Oh, you need to go back to The Walking Dead, Annie. If anything just for this last season, of which, the finale has been, arguably, the best episode ever of the series.

        • I just can’t. I had to put my foot down! I didn’t like the entire first season but I stuck it out because everyone told me it gets amazing. I thought the second season was good (but still not “amazing”) and was on board through part of the third, but then I became less and less interested until finally I gave up. I feel like I gave them more than their fair chance to win me over, and now I have to take a stand! (I can be amazingly stubborn.)

  • Mary Roberts Longoria

    I love this show and have been watching it ever since the first season!!! Never miss it!!! You described the characters perfectly!!!

  • A. B. Davis

    Annie, we just became even more kindred. I saw this show on Netflix a few months ago and decided to give it a try because I love Freddie Highmore. After just one episode I was utterly captivated, disgusted, and horrified by Norma Bates (not to mention envious of her wardrobe! I love all the old music and old clothes–they really set the mood in this show). And you absolutely hit the nail on the freaking head with the creators/writers not overplaying thier hand. I will say, and I’ve only watched through season 2 (just finished last night actually!), that this second season, specifically these last few episodes have moved more toward the feel I was hoping for from this show, and I couldn’t be happier. I still very much enjoyed the first season and beginning of this second one–even though the teen drama and made for tv melodrama feel was sometimes over the top–but this turn for the darker made me over the moon ecstatic. And more and more I grow to love Dylan’s depth, Norma’s perverse and twisted perception of reality, and Norman’s developing, or I should say blossoming, psychoses. I can’t wait to watch the third season. I know it’s partway through already, so I will have to catch reruns. 🙂 Lovely fangirl post!

    • I knew you would love this one; I just didn’t know you already do! That makes me so happy. 😀 I can hardly wait for you to get into the third season. I think it keeps getting better and better!!

  • Peggy

    Consider us sucked in to The Bates Motel! We’ve had a blast watching season 1 this weekend.

  • I have not seen this one, but I watched the recent VH-1 (yes you read that right) series called Hingsight. I loved the premise about a woman who ends up back in 1992– or thereabouts. So it’s not very distant past but enough to allow her to make a different path. Plus, I LOVE all the music, clothes, etc. I hope it gets a second season!

    • Oh, that sounds like a blast! I just looked it up and it really does look like fun. I haven’t heard anything about VH1 in forever — glad to hear they’re still chugging along.

  • Peggy

    Thanks for this post!!! Not only was it a fun post, but we had hours of fun watching Seasons I & II on Netflix! I’ve tried to find Season III on the A&E website, but right now they only have the full episodes of 5, 6, 7, & 8 available:(

    • That’s so awesome! I love it when someone likes my recommendations. 😀 It’s a bummer that they don’t have the early episodes of 3 up too. I guess they’ll put the whole season on Netflix once it’s all aired.

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  • Jordan

    I actually just started watching this show not long ago myself, and it is just the right type of creepy for me! 😉 Can’t wait to get caught up completely to date though! I have high hopes for this show… it’s been awhile since I have really gotten into a TV series.

    • Oh yay! I love it when a good thing gets followers. 🙂 I hope you enjoy it as much as I have been!