The Remote: A&E’s ‘Bates Motel’ sets standard for drama series

Ryan Pait

As a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” I was both excited and worried when A&E announced “Bates Motel,” a so-called contemporary prequel to the film.

I was mostly concerned because “Psycho” is such a product of its time.

The $40,000 Marion Crane steals seems like chump change today, and criminology has advanced so far that the crimes committed in the movie would be nigh impossible to get away with now.

Scary and effective as “Psycho” still is, I was afraid that an attempt to modernize Hitchcock’s masterpiece would be a dud.

Surprisingly, however, it’s working rather well.

“Bates Motel” delves deep into the dark lives of Norma and Norman Bates, one of pop culture’s most famous mother-son pairs.

They’re right up there with Oedipus and Jocasta and Buster and Lucille Bluth.

Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga stars as Norma, and she’s a perfect fit for the part. Farmiga has that certain je ne sais quoi that Hitchcock was so talented at finding, and she has the aura of a classic Hitchcock blonde.

Farmiga is at the top of her game here, going from cool and collected to histrionic fit-throwing in two seconds flat. She’s completely transparent and completely unreadable, all at the same time.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Farmiga picks up an Emmy nomination for her work here.

Also good is Freddie Highmore as Norman. And yes, he’s that Freddie Highmore, the one from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s definitely strange to see him in a role like this, but the strangeness works in his favor in “Bates Motel.”

It’s hard to fill the indelible shoes of Anthony Perkins as Norman, but Highmore does an admirable job. Like Norma, Norman alternately flashes between stilted poise and rampaging rage.

Like mother, like son.

Farmiga and Highmore play exceptionally well off of each other — in fact, the two are at their best when they’re capturing that creepy and unusual tension that exists between this oedipal pair.

Other characters refer to them as “Mr. and Mrs. Bates,” and it cuts to the quick because Farmiga and Highmore are so committed to and invested in these roles.

The show just passed the halfway mark of its first season, and it’s plowing right along in terms of plot. Like most cable series, “Bates Motel” received a smaller episode order.

It’s a model that works extremely well, especially for drama series. With only ten to 13 episodes, cable series don’t have time for extraneous side plots and silly distractions. The small episode order model keeps things tight, focused and interesting.

“Bates Motel” takes advantage of its limited number of episodes, keeping all of its parts and pieces moving toward their sinister endgames.

The bigger networks should start looking at this model, because it’s one that’s obviously effective. Every Emmy nominee for “Outstanding Drama Series” last year was a cable series. It’s not a coincidence.

While fans of “Psycho” will know how this saga will ultimately end, “Bates Motel” has me hooked.

It’s about the oedipal journey, not the destination.