Norman Bates is almost as scary carrying a backpack as he was with a butcher knife. "Bates Motel," A&E's new thriller series, rewinds Anthony Perkins' iconic "Psycho" character back to his high school years. The series, which begins its 10-episode run Monday, doesn't make the mistake of trying to channel Alfred Hitchcock. It brings its own style of spine-tingling dysfunction to the screen. And this present-day Norman is a very different animal when he arrives in the sleepy coastal town where his mother has just bought a motel.
The property is a dump, with treacherous stone stairs to a house crumbling beneath its French roof, but Norman sticks up for Mother.
"My mom's just a little ... impulsive," he says with a tiny smile. Freddie Highmore, who just turned 21, actually looks like a teenager, and his throwback button-downs and sweaters cling to his delicate shoulders as a reminder that Norman is not yet man of the house.
He'll have to shape up quickly, though, because something is wrong with White Pine Bay. Something dangerous lives inside Mom, too, and soon the two of them are pulling up blood-soaked carpet at 2 a.m.
The show's creators, bringing experience from "Lost" and "Friday Night Lights," have created a darkly comic, cliffhanger-heavy mystery that feels like a character-driven cousin of "American Horror Story." It begins with the trauma that leaves son scarred and mother widowed.
Norma, desperate to start fresh, tears into her new life like a hungry tiger. Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga, tackling TV after a series of independent films, is convincing as a cunning businesswoman who wants security in the form of profits -- and the constant presence of Norman.
When he tries to go out for the track team, she unleashes a passive-aggressive, "I'll just do everything myself!" rant Livia Soprano would approve of. When guilt doesn't work on Norman, she changes her blouse in front of him a few times.
Unsettling as they are to spend time with, Norman and Norma won't be wolves among sheep. A few incidents of jaw-dropping violence (including a rape in the first episode) make it clear that White Pine Bay is hiding dark secrets in the woods.
Something other than artisanal cheese has kept the community recession-proof, but it takes the unwelcome arrival of Norma's oldest son, Dylan (Max Thierot), to root into the underground economy. A lucrative, dangerous job is just what reckless, jaded Dylan craves, so he'll be sticking around.
Thierot, who jumps off the screen like Aaron Paul did in the first season of "Breaking Bad," acts as the truth-teller amid the Bates madness. "She's ruined you," he tells Norman. But the brothers might bond, now that they've gotten their meat tenderizer fight out of the way. And Norman could use some lessons in fitting in.
We've been to this high school before, the one where everyone participates in English class and most classwork is done in coed pairs off campus, until it's time for an elaborately staged weeknight rave at the angry rich kid's dad's girlfriend's mansion. A welcome-wagon convertible of cheerleaders -- don't remember those? -- picks Norman up like they're all in an iPod commercial.
It's Farmiga who evokes an era gone by, with her green vintage Mercedes and closet full of long robes and wrap dresses that fall open at strategic moments.
Unlike the "Psycho" Norma, who screeched at her son about his "cheap erotic mind," this film noir broad exploits her sexuality with abandon. She won't be reduced to peering through the drapes from her rocking chair anytime soon.
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