A&E reopens "Bates Motel" as an intriguing prequel series that creates an expanded Bates family as it seeks to explain how a teenage Norman Bates eventually went psycho.
The story has been told many times since the original 1960 "Psycho." There were two big-screen sequels (1983 and 1986), a 1990 TV movie prequel and a 1998 remake. There was even a 1987 TV movie.
The latest re-telling -- from writers Kerry Ehrin ("Friday Night Lights") and Carlton Cuse ("Lost") -- is more psychological thriller than horror show. Horrible things do happen in "Bates Motel" -- especially in the pilot, which features several deaths and a rape -- but the emphasis is squarely on the characters, their relationships and the psychological torment than can, perhaps, create a killer.
Although a prequel, "Bates Motel" (10 p.m. Monday) is set in the present. Norman (Freddie Highmore, Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga, "Up in the Air"), display a mid-20th-century taste for clothing, cars and movies. Only when they interact with other characters is there a reminder of the contemporary setting.
The premiere begins with Norman stumbling out of his bedroom (was he drugged?) to find the corpse of his father elsewhere in the house. "Bates Motel" doesn't outright say that Norma was the killer -- who knows, maybe we'll eventually learn it was Norman doing the deed at Norma's behest? -- but it is implied.
Six months later Norman and Norma have left Arizona and moved to White Pine Bay, Ore., where Norma buys the soon-to-be-renamed Seafairer Motel and the large house on the hill behind it. Turns out she bought the house at foreclosure, and the previous owner, who still lives nearby, has left all sorts of antique furniture inside for reasons unknown. This owner, a bit of a drunk, stops by as a sort of Unwelcome Wagon and threatens Norma, setting up some of the mayhem that follows.
In the aftermath, suspicious local sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell, "Lost") stops by with deputy Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel, "Pan Am") to ask questions; Norman makes friends with Bradley (Nicola Peltz), a popular girl at school, and Emma (Olivia Cooke), a sickly student who pulls an oxygen tank after her through the high school hallways.
Episode two introduces Norman's bad-boy half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), whose relationship with Norma is distant and more normal than Norman's. Dylan even mocks his mother and half-brother, saying, "Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Bates."
That relationship between Norman and Norma is at the crux of "Bates Motel." She's smothering, jealous and demanding. Even so, Norman, while sometimes chafing at her grip on his life, remains devoted. At one point he announces, "You're everything to me, and I don't ever want to live in a world without you."
Of course, anyone who has seen "Psycho" knows Norman ends up killing his mother, and "Bates Motel" is likely to track young Norman's progression from devoted son to mother killer.
Mr. Highmore is well cast as a nerdy-creepy crier who daydreams about his teacher being tied and gagged and who by episode three is frequently muttering, "What is wrong with me?" Ms. Farmiga plays a self-absorbed narcissist capable of killing with restraint. She never resorts to scenery-chewing histrionics.
"Bates Motel" takes a few episodes to get going as the writers build the world of White Pine Bay, and the story appears poised to really kick into a higher gear with a revelation at the end of the third episode.
Up to this point "Bates Motel" is an OK character drama, but in building the broader world it inhabits the show begins to come into sharper focus. Creating a more fully realized fictional world offers promise that "Bates Motel" will grow into a deeper, more mysterious TV drama.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.