Tomorrow evening on A&E, the second season of Bates Motel has its premiere. It’s intended as something of a “prequel” to Hitchcock’s Psycho, even though it’s set in the present day, and in Oregon, as opposed to Arizona and California. Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho has become a landmark in our culture, which is a development I do not view with unambiguous enthusiasm. The first half of the 1960 version — which is to say, up to but not including the famous shower scene — is one of my favorite films of all time, an atmospheric film noir about a young woman trapped in an deeply unjust relationship situation who starts to cut moral corners and descends into ever greater dangers. The second half, from the shower scene onwards, is executed with great skill by the master craftsman, but it is less emotionally captivating; and it has of course been the progenitor of the whole psycho-slasher genre of recent decades.
Bates Motel succeeds as a drama because it is closer to the emotional spirit of the first half of the initial Psycho. The show’s setting, and its sense of humor, are reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks; producer Carlton Cuse has admitted quite frankly that Twin Peaks was an inspiration for the show. But there’s a notable difference. In Lynch’s series, there was a great focus on human weirdness, but its attitude toward that weirdness seemed to have a great deal of coldness at its heart. Bates Motel, in contrast, conveys a deep sense of affection for its weird characters. Vera Farmiga, stunningly beautiful as always, portrays Norman Bates’s mother not as a monster, but more like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm: a basically decent person whose efforts to cope with life tend to have disastrous immediate results, and to only get worse from there. And Olivia Cooke is adorable as Norman’s best friend in high school, who has cystic fibrosis and has to carry an oxygen tank and breathing apparatus with her wherever she goes. In Twin Peaks, a character like her might well have been portrayed as a freak chiefly to be laughed at (think, for example, of the Log Lady). But in Bates Motel, she is a pretty, courageous, and sweet young woman.
As one would expect from a 2014 updating of Psycho, Bates Motel deals with a lot of sexual issues in a way that is probably not appropriate for younger viewers. (The villains in the first season — this is not much of a spoiler — were sex traffickers smuggling Asian women into the U.S.) But for anyone looking for a well-acted, humanistic suspense series with a great sense of humor, I recommend the first season of Bates Motel (you can watch it on Hulu); and I look forward to Monday evening’s second-season premiere.
Bonus: Here’s one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, from the 1960 Psycho: Janet Leigh driving in the rain with the stolen money. So many things had to be just right for this to work — Hitchcock’s storytelling-though-voiceovers, Bernard Herrmann’s now-legendary scoring, and (above all) Janet Leigh having to hold the audience with her facial expressions for most of the three and a half minutes. It’s a triumph of film art. (And I didn’t remember until watching this clip right now that Janet Leigh’s boss in the film was named . . . Mr. Lowery. Yes, pronounced the same way.)