Charlie and the Chopped-Up Factory

In short, it’s been a rough week. I’ve been writing (yes, writing is my actual job, living the dream, sell-out, whatever you want to shout at me) enough to castrate my sleep pattern, my body has been going so mental I half-expect to wake up tomorrow with my thumbs on fire or something, and I had to get up at seven this morning. SEVEN! I’m a student AND freelance writer! I shouldn’t even know the morning exists!

So the week’s been a blur. But one thing that stands out loud and clear is watching Bates Motel back-to-back. I may have casually dropped into this blog perhaps once or twice that I don’t really mind a bit of horror here and there, so I decided to get down on the prequel of Psycho, starring Freddie Highmore (welcome to a world of painful Charlie and the Chopped-Up Factory jokes, darling) as a teenage Norman Bates, Vera Farmiga as the eponymous Mother, and Max Thieriot (whose name I swear I read as Max The Riot for seven episodes) as half-brother his name escapes me. I’ll go out on a limb and guess the surname’s Bates.

Now, I wasn’t sure about this series from the start. I put off watching it so long because the basic premise-a Psycho prequel set in the present day-seemed so thunderingly pointless. Origin stories are almost inevitably disappointing, as we almost need no more than an implication of background for a character as iconic as Norman Bates. I just need to know what they are now (or, confusingly, 1960 in this case). But hey: I’ll give everything a go once. That’s why my nose is squint.

The show, I soon discovered, has several wonderful points. Max Thieriot, for example, took the kind of shitty role he was given and ran with it, becoming a vain, snippy voice of reason against the increasing tidal wave of absurdity. I couldn’t tell you specifically why he was my favourite-maybe because I came to the series with no preconceptions about his character-but I loved Thieriot and he’ll be delighted to hear I shall be following his career with interest after Bates Motel. And there were some really fantastic touches-the recreation of the motel and house on the hill was grand-as well as a couple of seriously unsettling Oedipal moments between Norman and Norma (there’s a scene when she’s sitting on his bed, just chatting, and touches his leg as she leaves, and the barely-perceptible leg shuffle Highmore does afterwards made me cringe). I like the few nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, too-there’s a spot-on recreation of a shot of Norman from above that made the pretentious part of me put down it’s Merlot and raise an eyebrow.

But there are many, many things wrong with the show. It makes Norma into a constant victim, then villain, then victim, then villain, then…and so on. I like moral ambiguity in a show-Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, anyone?- but there’s no grey area here. There’s just black and white very, very quickly; it’s like driving past a field of zebras on a segway. Then there’s the problem of Freddie Highmore. No, that’s wrong- I don’t know if he’s good or not. Norman Bates is a jackpot of a role for someone trying to break into the real acting industry after being a pretty well-known movie baby- you’ve got one of the most iconic performances ever to work off of and some sterling source material in the form of the film and the book. But I’m torn. Sometimes I think he’s giving an astoundingly perceptive performance of an emotionless psychopath and sometimes I think he just can’t act. Either way-he’s not Norman.

And therein lies the rub. The show, while occasionally showing flashes of being interesting and quite dark, isn’t and shouldn’t have tried to align itself with Psycho. Tap into small-town politics, have a creepy mother-son relationship, make it wierd and unsettling-but let’s face it, lads, the minute you gave Norman an iPhone I disassociated Bates Motel from Psycho in my head. The show is pointless. Interesting, but pointless. We don’t need Psycho: College Years. The show itself seems to realize this early on and gives up making Norman into NORMAN BATES; aside from a few cursory “LOL HE’Z A NUTTER” moments, Bates Motel is going to be looked back on as another hanger-on, a vaguely interesting premise that threw out it’s source material by episode four. That said, it’s been renewed for a second season, and I will be watching, to see if anyone can taxidermy up this joint. Somebody hand me a segway.