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A&E takes a stab at a 'Psycho' prequel

Posted 7:38am on Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013

The Bates Motel is reopening, under new management.

But haven't we heard this empty promise before?

Psycho is an enduring movie classic that, after director Alfred Hitchcock's death in 1980, spawned three substandard sequels, a failed TV series spinoff and a pointless shot-for-shot color remake.

That sorry track record doesn't inspire immediate confidence in the latest reboot.

Bates Motel, which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on A&E, is a 10-episode prequel that presents Norman Bates, Psycho's famous cross-dressing, knife-wielding lady killer, as a shy 17-year-old.

But you have to hand it to the new management: As tired as the idea of another redo might be, they desperately want Bates Motel to be a cut above the rest.

That's why the new series has the weight of one of TV's top writer-producers behind it: Carlton Cuse. The highlight of Cuse's long career was when he, along with Damon Lindelof, served as show runner, executive producer and head writer during all six seasons of a pop-culture phenomenon called Lost.

Beyond that, Bates Motel has a strong cast, headed by Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as young Norman.

There's even a fun casting connection to Lost: Nestor Carbonell, the actor who played ageless Richard Alpert, co-stars as a bulldog sheriff who rightly suspects Mrs. Bates of foul play.

Sadly, that's just about the only element that's fun in this thoroughly unpleasant series.

Cuse chooses to think of his Psycho endeavor "not as a slasher/horror show, but as a complex, character-based thriller," which is to say it's not going to be a murder-of-the-week series, even though it opens looking like that's precisely the direction it will take.

When Episode 2 expands Norman's world to include the town that he'll grow up in (White Pine Bay, a dark and twisted community with Twin Peaks-style secrets but none of the Peaksian humor), it becomes painfully clear what this series is going to be like: unappetizingly dull.

The show is a prequel, but not in the strictest sense, given that Bates Motel is set in 2013 and the original movie, which starred Anthony Perkins as a late-20s Norman, was released in 1960.

The series opens with Norman's widowed mother buying a run-down roadside inn and the creepy house that overlooks it.

She wants to "start over" here. But the new start takes a horrific turn when she is raped in her own home. After she stabs her attacker -- repeatedly, of course, for that's how the Bateses do it -- Norman helps clean up the awful mess and dispose of the body.

Think of it as on-the-job training for a serial killer-to-be.

Bear in mind that Norman isn't a monster yet. At this point, he's nothing more than a weak-willed mama's boy who is easily bullied by everyone around him, including a hateful stepbrother named Dylan.

It's also worth noting that Norma, as played by Farmiga, isn't the soul-destroying harpy that you might expect based on seeing the original movie.

Nevertheless, mother and son have a clingy-close relationship here, one that borders on something sick and twisted. (How was it that Perkins put it in the original? "A boy's best friend is his mother.")

But Cuse has promised that Bates Motel will reveal a litany of other factors, beyond the love-hate relationship with Mother, to explain Norman's inevitable descent into madness and murder.

Problem is, does anyone honestly care about a more complex "mythology" for Psycho?

The original is a masterpiece, spine-tingling and darkly funny to this day, but it wasn't even the Norman Bates character that made it so memorable. It was Hitchcock's sly touch behind the camera.

The magic that Hitch created can't be replicated. So isn't it time that Hollywood quit trying?

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