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A&E's 'Bates Motel' review: Puzzling

Actress Vera Farmiga attends the "Higher Ground" premiere

Actress Vera Farmiga attends the "Higher Ground" premiere at the AMC Loews 19th Street East 6 theater in Manhattan. (Aug. 15, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Carlton Cuse, in his first series since "Lost," arrives on a screen near you Monday with his new show, "Bates Motel."

Quick description -- a "contemporary prequel" to Hitchcock's '60 classic, "Psycho."

 What do I think? On to the jump! But here's a question that I never get into in the review, and is not addressed in the show itself -- why is A&E/Cuse rewinding this "Pyscho" prequel to the present day? I mean, really: That's odd because how can one reimagine Norman when in fact he was pyscho back in 1960?  Why not (say) set this series in 1950 when Norman Bates was a teen like Freddy Highmore's character? Doubtess this came up at the Winter Press tour (I was not in attendance). But I have a theory: It's more expensive to mount a period piece, with costumes, cars, buildings, everything.  Always look to the money in TV. 

"Bates Motel," A&E, 10

What it's about: After her husband's unexplained death, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) uproots her son Norman (Freddie Highmore) and heads to the seaside motel in northern California that she bought with the life insurance payout, and has renamed "Bates Motel." Norma knows how to work her son's guilt and keep him under control - which erodes when he meets Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke) at school. Meanwhile, Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell), his deputy, Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel), and high school beauty, Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz) add more complications, as does Norman's half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot). Billed as a "contemporary prequel" to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic, "Psycho," and produced by "Lost's" Carlton Cuse.

My say: Who cares what a TV critic has to say about "Bates Motel?" What of the master himself, Hitch? He'd quite possibly be pleased AND puzzled. Pleased, because there are some smart, interesting touches here; puzzled, because other than the replica of Ma Bates' final resting place (that house), "Bates Motel" is no reflection of the original. There are plenty of other movie and TV tangents -- strains of "I Know What You Did Last Summer," "Play Misty For Me," even "Vampire Diaries" and "Twin Peaks."

The title of tonight's premiere, "First You Dream, then You Die," refers to an unfinished story by '30s-era noir crime writer, Cornell Woolrich, who (yes) lived with his mother as an adult and inspired Hitchcock's "Rear Window."

 Though clearly indebted to movie history, Cuse has re-imagined Norman as a youth without making any attempt to re-imagine "Pyscho." Instead, this feels like a thoroughly modern cable drama, with (sadly, now requisite) brutal violence, a high school storyline,, and strange townies with stranger backstories. With the exception of intriguing, soulful, Emma, none of the characters really jump off the screen and into your lap. The acting is solid all around - just not entirely convincing. Remember: You are watching Norman BATES, before he turns into the knife-slashing monster of Janet Leigh's worst nightmare.

Cuse and A&E would have been better advised to give the motel a different name and start fresh.

Bottom line: Unrecognizable as Hitchcock, but not as latter day primetime, with blood, lust, and mysteries -- a lot of those.

Grade: B-

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