"What's wrong with Norman?" someone asks in the third episode of "Bates Motel," A&E's update and prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Maybe they should be asking, "What's wrong with Norman's new town?"
The Norman in question is Norman Bates, the knife-wielding maniac played creepily by Anthony Perkins in the 1960 horror classic. In the compelling new series (9 p.m. March 18, A&E; 3 stars out of 4) executive produced by Carlton Cuse ("Lost") and Kerry Ehrin ("Friday Night Lights"), Freddie Highmore plays up Norman's vulnerability, making him a sweet but socially awkward high school outcast with definite mommy issues.
Mommy Dearest is Norma, who here is much more than the mummified corpse she was in "Psycho." Vera Farmiga, devouring the juicy role, plays Norma as a loving, protective mother prone to smothering her son. She's also an impulsive, sexual and jealous creature who manipulates Norman and others. One way or another, this woman gets what she wants.
When we meet the Batses in Monday's premiere, Norman has discovered the body of his father in the garage. Norma, not at all upset about it, packs up Norman and their belongings in the car and sets off for a fresh start in the seemingly idyllic coastal town of White Pine Bay, where she's purchased a motel and the hauntingly familiar house on the hill beside it.
That's when things get (more) disturbing.
As the mother and son meet more of their new neighbors, viewers are introduced to a steady steam of shady characters more suited to "Lost" than "Friday Night Lights." It turns out the new Bates Motel has a history, and its former owner is not pleased that Norma snatched it up so cheaply in a foreclosure sale. He harasses the Bateses--which really, he shouldn't do that--while his buddy, Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), casts a wary eye on Norman and Norma. Deputy Zach Shelby (Mike Vogel) casts a different kind of an eye on Norma.
By the time Norman's estranged half-brother, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), shows up to work Norma's nerves, we know White Pine Bay is hiding skeletons more nasty than those in the Bateses' closet. Norma's idea that it's she and Norman against the world might be less twisted than we think.
As they reveal more of White Pine Bay, Cuse and Ehrin slowly ratchet up the subtle suspense and eeriness Hitchcock so loved. But not everything is as restrained in "Bates Motel." A horrific rape scene in the first hour signals the unsettling nature of the series, but it could also compell some viewers to turn it off. And while I'm on the subject of flaws: It makes sense geek girl Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke) would dig nerdy Norman, but I'm still not clear how he attracts the attention of popular girl Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz). But hey, no one understands teens, right?
"Bates Motel," however, makes one thing crystal clear by the end of the first episode: Like "Psycho," it offers a deliciously scary stew of unexpected twists, murder and mind games.
Watch the first six minutes of the premiere below:
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