[The following article contains spoilers for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” I suppose it also contains spoilers for Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho.”]
PASADENA, CA – The eponymous central location in A&E’s “Bates Motel” looks mighty familiar, from the grungy numbered rooms to the teetering manager’s house atop a steep staircase. If you’ve been on the Universal Studios backlot tour north of Los Angeles, you’ll know the place.
The main character in A&E’s “Bates Motel” is named Norman Bates and there’s much in Freddie Highmore’s nervous, eager-to-please performance that will call back Tony Perkins’ iconic work, which he then reprised in multiple sequels.
The Norman Bates in “Bates Motel” has a somewhat co-dependent relationship with his mother and while she’s played in the new drama by the full-of-life Vera Farmiga rather than being portrayed by a desiccated corpse in the basement, elements of the dynamic between Norman and his mom will be familiar.
In fact, A&E has been teasing “Bates Motel” as being a prequel to “Psycho” since the network ordered the series from Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) without even seeing a pilot.
In my book, a somewhat restrictive book, “prequel” implies that it precedes the events from “Psycho” and leads up to those events. As “Psycho” tells us that Norman’s mother had been in her mummified/taxidermed state for a decade, the timeframe of “Bates Motel,” with its 17-year-old Norman, would imply that we’re no more than a couple years from A Very Bad Thing happening. And then we’d be 10 years — who knows how many seasons? — from a visit by Marion Crane seeking shelter from a downpour while absconding with $40,000.
Not so fast.
At a Friday (January 4) afternoon lunch at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Cuse addressed how much of a link “Bates Motel” actually has to “Psycho.”
The answer? Not as much as you might be thinking.
“Kerry and I, when we started talking about the show I think, first of all, the idea of doing a contemporary prequel made it clear that what we were doing was something that was inspired by ‘Psycho’ but not an homage to ‘Psycho,’ and that was a big difference to us,” Cuse told reporters. “And it just seemed really interesting to us, this sort of fundamental idea of how does Norman Bates become the guy who”s in that movie? And that was just really a fascinating idea for us. And in a certain way, you know, we thought, well, this is a tragedy and that”s not a dramatic it”s a fantastic dramatic form but not one that you get to do a lot in television. And we sort of want the audience to fall in love with these characters, particularly Norma and Norman, and yet we know sort of their inevitable fates.”
So the first thing that you have to know, as you heard there, is that “Bates Motel” isn’t set in 1940-something.
“[I]t felt like making that fundamental decision to make the story contemporary gave us the freedom to really, again, take these characters wherever we wanted to,” Cuse explained. “And I think there is both I mean, there”s a certain amount of baggage that comes from working within the ‘Psycho’ franchise. But also, to us it ultimately seemed like far more opportunity, that but again, that”s sort of the setup of this and it just gave us the license as storytellers to tell a really interesting, character driven psychological thriller.”
I’ll confess that I got a bit hung up on the semantics here. Norman’s basic backstory is conveyed in the exposition-heavy climactic scene in “Psych” and certain details of that core origin are already out the window within 44 minutes of “Bates Motel.” And that’s saying nothing of the much more evolved, involved and advanced mythology that unfolds with variable success in three additional movies.
Not only is the backstory described in “Psycho” not canon, but the sequels are now irrelevant as well.
“We just wanted to sort of take these characters and the setup as inspiration. So, no, we don”t really view any of that as canon,” Cuse said. “And, in fact, the mythology that you think is what dictates the relationship between Norma and Norman is probably not what it”s going to turn out to be. That little scene at the very beginning of the pilot, we”ll see the rest of that scene in an episode downstream and it may surprise you what you actually learn about what the relationship is like between these two characters and what drives Norman Bates to be the guy that he becomes. And for us it was really a process of invention, not of trying to kind of stick to what had been done.”
And is “Psycho” itself no longer canon? By that, I mean if “Bates Motel” had a long run, would we eventually get Marion Crane, her ill-fated shower and the ensuing investigation?
“I don”t think so, no,” Cuse admitted.
This led me to ask if “Bates Motel” is going to turn out to be a kind of “How I Stuffed My Mother,” in which viewers go on a long journey that leads to matricide and that’s where the story ended.
“I think that we know that he is a tragic figure,” Cuse said of Norman. “[Y]ou know, I love ‘Titanic’ and the idea that you”re kind of rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to survive despite the fact that you know that they”re not going to. And I think in some general way that”s the feeling we want the audience to have here, that you”re going to be rooting for these characters to somehow survive despite the fact that you sort of know that their fate ultimately is tragic. But the specific way in which their tragic fate plays out, again, is going to be something that will be of our own invention.”
So none of the events of “Psycho” are part of the destination of “Bates Motel” and none of what we know about the journey of Norman Bates and his mother is necessarily where “Bates Motel” is headed. We know he’s a tragic figure, but how that tragedy will reveal itself may not be what we expect from the story.
Viewers will be able to decide for themselves if Cuse and company earned the right to tap into the Hitchcock brand when “Bates Motel” premieres on March 18 at 10 p.m. on A&E.