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'Bates Motel' opens for business on A&E

The series, about a younger Norman Bates of Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' stars Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. Its producers are aware of the risks.

March 14, 2013|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga star in the new A&E series, "Bates Motel."
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga star in the new A&E series, "Bates… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

The big screen's most formidable mama's boy is coming to TV.

Norman Bates, the deranged character of "Psycho" fame, is proving movie stars aren't the only ones hunkering down to the small screen — some of cinema's fictional personas are also making the move. "Bates Motel" is a sort-of prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 standard set to roll out Monday on A&E.

The new series, from Carlton Cuse ("Lost") and Kerry Ehrin ("Friday Night Lights"), tracks the notorious psychopath during his adolescent years in the present day. (Cue the violin screeches.) The contemporary rebooting of the genre-defining film accompanies renewed attention over the Master of Suspense as evidenced by HBO's "The Girl," and last year's big-screen feature "Hitchcock."

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The TV series lands at a pivotal time for the network, which normally has been associated with very successful middlebrow reality programming like "Storage Wars" and "Duck Dynasty." The latter reality series drew a whopping 8.6 million viewers for its third season premiere last month.

The question is whether "Bates Motel" — in a time of cable ratings powerhouses like AMC's "The Walking Dead" and even History's recent "Vikings" — can hold its own.

"This is a show we hope lots of people will be jealous that they don't have on their cable channels," Cuse said. "It's better to be one of the first shows of a network. You're much better off being 'Mad Men' on AMC than a new show that's trying to come out in the wake of 'Mad Men,' 'Breaking Bad' and 'The Walking Dead.'"

The dark drama, which was filmed in Vancouver, introduces viewers to the future murderer as a shy teen, played by Freddie Highmore ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), and explores the back story of his twisted relationship with his enigmatic mother Norma, played by Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air"). The pair move to a new town for a fresh start after the death of Norman's father and launch a new business: the Bates Motel. And things, naturally, get a bit eerie from there.

"I feel incredibly lucky to take on such an iconic character," said Highmore, 21, who plays the role made infamous by Anthony Perkins. "We know where Norman Bates is going to arrive and it's interesting to see how he arrives there."

The iconic film has weathered its share of sequels and remakes, even a failed '80s TV movie spinoff called "Bates Motel." The cast and creators of the new series are well aware of the challenges ahead.

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"It's very much a high degree difficulty dive," Cuse said of adapting a classic. "There are a million ways you can belly flop."

"Look, it's a great hook," added Farmiga. "For me, yeah, I kind of groan at remakes and the like. But, hey, theater is the gathering of shoplifters. Hitchcock has stolen from Shakespeare. Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch. Stories are recycled constantly. That's not to say initially when I heard the title, I didn't roll my eyes. But with the first flip of the script, I was just lost in it."

But can Cuse and Ehrin curb eye rolling from others, particularly die-hard "Psycho" enthusiasts? First things first, they say: "Bates Motel" is not meant to be a homage to the classic.

"We didn't want to be beholden to the mythology," Cuse said. "If we made it a period drama, we'd instantly feel all sorts of obligations. Look at what Quentin Tarantino did with 'Inglourious Basterds' — he killed Hitler in a movie theater. He was liberated from the mythology. And what Chris Nolan did with the Batman franchise. He made three wholly original stories within the context of that franchise. That's what we wanted to do here."

Originally, the project was conceived as a period prequel in a miniseries format. But when it was presented to A&E, the network wasn't keen on the idea of a miniseries or a period yarn. But once Cuse and Ehrin came onboard and envisioned it as a modern-day prequel, the network bypassed the traditional pilot process and ordered straight to series with 10 episodes.

"We wanted to strive to get the absolute best cast," said Bob DeBitetto, president and general manager of the network. "And we felt going to the community and saying, look, 'We're not casting a pilot, we're casting a go-series for Carlton Cuse on A&E, are you interested?' would be a big help."

"Bates Motel" is one of two prequels following the formative years of famous fictional serial killers — NBC's upcoming Bryan Fuller drama, "Hannibal," centers on a young Hannibal Lecter of "The Silence of the Lambs." Both series arrive amid new concerns about the level of violence on television in the wake of recent shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.

While intense and provocative, Cuse and Ehrin promise the show isn't a violent-to-be-violent, murder-of-the-week type of show.

"At its heart, it's about a mother and son's relationship," said Ehrin, who brings her familial know-how accrued on family-heavy dramas "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood." "The show offered this opportunity to tell this story of a mother and her son and their incredibly complex relationship that we know is going to go someplace that's tragic, but we don't know how it gets there."

And while that relationship borders on incestuous at times, Farmiga insists the show won't be looking to push boundaries to that end.

"All I can tell you is, that so far on this show, Norma has not kissed Norman any different than I kiss my own babies, I can promise you that," she said.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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