Thursday, May 23, 2013

BATES MOTEL ENDS IT FIRST SEASON WITH A BANG AND A BLADE


I don't often write about TV series here, but BATES MOTEL has been discussed as it's based on one of the most famous movies of all-time, and a Top 10 favorite of mine - PSYCHO. Thus, I'm turning my attention to writing about the season finale and the show's first season that just concluded this week. And indeed, the conclusion was quite noteworthy. The A & E freshman series went out with a bang - a bang from a gun, as well as a cut from a big knife. After all, if you’re going to tell the origins story of Norman Bates, the troubled lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, you have to expect a little violence, and the freshman show certainly delivered it with two characters pushing up daisies by the final credits. It also set up a second season that now stands ripe for all kinds of further nefariousness.
Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) in BATES MOTEL 
The popular basic cable series, whose finale drew 2.7 viewers (http://bit.ly/13FGh7n), up 8% in total viewers, continued to prove that horror could be done exceptionally well on TV. Following the template laid down by FX’s runaway success AMERICAN HORROR STORY, this show navigated similar waters, being both frightening and exceptionally moving. The story of Norman Bates and his protective mother Norma could have been played as caricature, what with PSYCHO being parodied so extensively over the past 50 years, but show creator Anthony Cipriano, his writers and cast opted to play it straight. Their efforts were sincere; turning the two leads into full-blooded creatures, even when they were bloodletting.

It helped immensely to have such assured actors as Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in those leads. Freddie Highmore echoed the landmark performance of Anthony Perkins as Norman from the original movie (http://exm.nr/LOCHUQ), while plumbing depths that made his take on the role even more sympathetic. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes one to ruin a kid too, and boy oh boy, did the town of White Pine Bay, Oregon have it in for this kid. One of the brilliant things that BATES MOTEL did was show how the townspeople around Norman were as screwed up as he is. And it sent the impressionable lad reeling. Highmore acted with nary a word, acting mostly with his incredibly reactive face and body language. It was an amazing performance week in and week out and it made us feel the awful ache coursing through his body, mind and soul.
Norma comforts an injured Norman in a scene from the TV series BATES MOTEL


And Vera Farmiga made mama Norma into one of the most complex and fascinating female characters on television. Even when Norma was at her most selfish, Farmiga kept the audience’s sympathies close to her bosom. Her Norma was no black and white villain but rather a wounded woman fighting to stay in the game even if it meant playing dirty to do so. The performance certainly merits strong Emmy consideration as Farmiga essayed the smothering mother with sexiness, sadness and feeling worthy of our pity.

And while Norma courageously fought to make a go of her motel business, the town and its incredibly corrupt population thwarted her at almost every turn. You know the straight and narrow is working against you when the town’s main source of income is from distributing marijuana. And then Norma found out that the hotel she bought used to be a sanctuary for drug denizens and sex orgies. Top that off with a town sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) who is on the take and as despicable as any crook, and you’ve got a perfect storm for Norma and Norman to be ruined further. Even the Northern Pacific weather works against them, constantly threatening to rain on their parade.
Cast members Nestor Carbonell, Nicola Peltz, Olivia Cooke, Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga and Max Thieriot
The supporting cast made a strong impression throughout the season too. And defied many clichés of serial TV and the horror genre. The all-American girl Bradley (Nicola Peltz) started out as a sweetheart who stole Norman’s heart, even taking his virginity, but then she broke his heart by dumping him. Still, Bradley isn’t a villain. She’s not the typical rich bitch character you find on TV shows, but rather, a very vulnerable girl who’s just looking for some understanding and human connection in a cold, cruel town. She may have found the right person for it in Norman’s stepbrother Dylan (Max Thieriot). He’s a tough, yet sensitive sort and Thieriot made a potentially thuggish character into someone we cared about and even rooted for.

All the characters had similar layers and were full of surprises. One of the greatest inventions for the series was the delightfully quirky, cystic-fibrosis suffering Emma DeCody (terrific British ingénue Olivia Cooke, doing a flawless American accent). She became Norman’s confidant and conscience, and may be a potential love interest for him too. And despite her chronic illness, she is the ray of sunshine in the gloomy town, never letting her malady cloud her optimism. We hope that her goodness helps Norman somehow but it’s doubtful she can save his burgeoning psychosis.
Emma (Olivia Cooke) dances with Norman (Freddie Highmore) at the prom
And in the final episode, the story of Norma and Norman took some horrific turns that were riveting season-enders. (Spoiler alert – I’m going to reveal the victims of the bang and the blade!) Norma enabled the ruthless murder of the sex peddler hounding her, and Norman rewarded the come-on from his comely teacher with a fatal slash to her throat. This is what BATES MOTEL promised in its premise and why it was one of the better horror offerings this season, on the big screen or the small one (http://exm.nr/ZKbWoT). It didn’t pull punches. Yes, it was entertaining, but it always kept a sense of dread throughout and forced us to see the monsters in all people, not just the leads.

And indeed, the end brought out the worse in Norman and Norma. Man is the most dangerous animal, particularly in a town where survival is a very real issue. Norman and Norma have survived, as has the show for a second season starting in January of 2014. And as the show continues on, you can be assured that other characters will go down around them. The fascinating opportunity for horror fans is to watch and see just how far the show can take us before we stop empathizing with such anti-heroes. Get ready for a lot of tears and fears. And make sure you lock that bathroom door when you shower.

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