New drama looks at Norman Bates before he went off the deep end

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A&E’s “Bates Motel” is kind of a mess, but that’s one of the reasons it’s fun to watch.


The drama is, of course, based on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and the novel by Robert Bloch. Technically, it’s a prequel, focusing on Norman Bates before he went off the deep end, and on his mother before she became beef jerky on a rope. But because creator Anthony Cipriano has set the story in the present day and expanded it beyond the fetid claustrophobia of the Bates house, A&E says the show is “inspired by” the Hitchcock film. Less obviously, it’s also inspired by “Twin Peaks,” “Justified” and, in one memorable scene, “Taxi Driver,” but who’s counting?


In today’s premiere episode, Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) have packed up and moved to the seemingly sleepy coastal town of White Pine Bay where Norma plans to make a new start after the unexplained death of her second husband, who was Norman’s father. She also has a child named Dylan (Max Thieriot) from her first marriage, but he’s supposed to be the bad son and Norma hasn’t even told him that they’re moving.


Before they’ve even had a chance to change the motel’s neon sign, Norman and Norma find themselves covering up a murder, Norman discovers a strange notebook filled with drawings of Asian women in bondage, the local sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) becomes suspicious of the Bateses and his deputy (Mike Vogel) becomes smitten with Norma.


Meanwhile, Norman tries to fit in at the local high school and develops a crush on popular girl Bradley (Nicola Peltz), but is seriously pursued by loner Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke), who has to drag an oxygen tank around with her because she has cystic fibrosis.


“What’s your life expectancy?” Norma asks bluntly when Norman brings the girl over for a visit.


And you thought your parents subjected your dates to a Spanish Inquisition.


Over the first three episodes, the plot thickens to an even more unlikely degree as we learn that White Pine Bay is no Mayberry and that half the town is raising pot to make money – lots of money.


For now, though, the credibility issues don’t matter that much because we’re more interested in the characters, who may not be all that credibly created themselves, but who are informed by Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece.


Freddie Highmore (“Finding Neverland”) is a good choice to play a young Norman, in part because he shares that combination of pretty innocence with malevolent overtones that made Anthony Perkins unforgettable in “Psycho.” At rest, Highmore’s face has a boyish sweetness, the mouth suggesting a faint smile. When Norman is provoked to anger (which happens with disturbing ease), the face becomes garish, terrifying. It makes it easy to imagine him turning into Perkins’ Norman Bates, especially as he wrestles to define himself against the smothering domination of Norma.


Unlike Highmore, Vermiga isn’t tethered to our memories of an actor from the Hitchcock film, but we still know Norma because we know Norman. Vermiga is given a lot of heavy lifting in “Bates Motel,” probably too much. She is by turns loving and supportive toward Norman, then dominating, and, to the outside world, just a normal single mom one minute and an evil manipulator the next.


Norma’s elder son is one of the show’s more credible and interesting characters. He’s a bad boy, but only because he’s been on to Norma’s ways from the get-go. Dylan is a classic anti-hero, in a way, and Thieriot gives him additional dimension through a nicely nuanced performance. The more we learn about Norma and the residents of White Pine Bay, the more we see Dylan as a comparative force for good.


It makes sense, on paper, to set the story in the present day because it removes it just a bit from “Psycho” and allows the writers to open it out beyond the Oedipal mother-son dynamic. But shifting the time period also loses something that Hitchcock used to subtle advantage, and that is the sexual repressiveness of the late 1950s. Of course, we know more about Hitchcock’s own psychological makeup now, through fact and mythology, and he couldn’t have known that our cultural attitudes on sexuality would evolve in the future.


Still, the times informed Hitchcock’s film, and the character of Norman and “Bates Motel” capitalizes as much as it can. But it’s more difficult to get a handle on the character when Norman is out of the context of the Bates home and motel in the series. There’s no sense of modern times being repressive when Norman is in the crowded halls of the high school, or standing off by himself at a party that Bradley invites him to attend. We get that he’s an outsider and that he has no social skills. But as a character, he becomes ironically more three-dimensional only when he’s home with his mother.


Well, you know what they say: A boy’s best friend is his mother. In the case of “Bates Motel,” make that “fiend.”


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