Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga
Like Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho, the producers behind A&E's new drama series Bates Motel seem to be of two minds.
A&E's prequel, which premieres Monday at 10/9c and stars Finding Neverland's Freddie Highmore as a teenage Norman Bates, seeks to tell audiences how a young man grows up to be a taxidermy-loving killer. The answer posited by Hitchcock's film is that Norman was driven insane by his overprotective mother Norma, played here by Vera Farmiga.
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While executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) are certainly playing up Norma and Norman's Oedipal relationship, they suggest that it takes more than a mother's smothering love to create a killer. And while Bates Motel wants to pay homage to Psycho, the producers don't necessarily view the film as the endpoint of their story. As such, they have set the story in modern day. That's right — Norman Bates has an iPhone.
"Going with a contemporary version really unshackled us from the movie," Cuse tells TVGuide.com. "It wasn't appealing to be writing in the shadow of the movie and feeling constrained by the mythology that has previously been created. We certainly weren't going to do better than Hitchcock did."
Adds Ehrin: "The movie was very much about a time when sex was not so front and center. So Norman Bates in that world is a different thesis than Norman Bates in a post-Sex and the City world. [It] seemed very interesting to take that character and put him into a world that is actually less innocent."
And in this world, almost no one is innocent. The series begins with young Norman discovering his father, who has suffered an "accident" in the garage. After burying her husband (and taking the money from his life insurance policy), Norma moves her son to the fictional town of White Pine Bay, Oregon, where she buys a motel out of foreclosure and plans a fresh start.
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"Norma is a person who has these idealized visions of what her life should be and she [believes] she is going to have this idealized life," Cuse says. "The way to upend that, of course, is to create a town which may look beautiful on the surface, but underneath is far from ideal. ... Norma and Norman [are] dropped into this world where you have a whole bunch of characters who each have their secrets and dark desires."
Indeed, in the premiere, the previous owner of the motel turns up at the Bates' home to harass Norma for stealing his family's land out from under him. Soon enough, the harassment turns violent — and bloody — and eventually invites the suspicions of the town sheriff (Lost's Nestor Carbonell) and his deputy (Pan Am's Mike Vogel).
Meanwhile, Norman quickly makes friends at school. He bonds with both Bradley (Nicola Peltz), the popular girl whose father is tied up in some of the town's shadier business, and Emma (Olivia Cooke), who wheels around an oxygen tank to combat her cystic fibrosis. Naturally, Norma doesn't approve.
"She is extremely good at protecting what she loves," Ehrin says. "She's a mother. She's a survivor, and she's not going to let people hurt her son." Adds Cuse: "She's been impulsive and reacts emotionally, but I think she always thinks her heart is in the right place. It's just sometimes her heart leads her in ways that might not be smart. We love the inherent unpredictability of that character. ... That's what makes her compelling."
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But Norman's relationship with Emma opens up portions of the story that are wholly original. After Norman discovers a hand-drawn manga book in one of the hotel rooms, he and Emma begin investigating the possibility that a sex slavery ring exists in White Pine Bay. (Their detective work also uncovers huge marijuana fields in the woods, which seem to provide the town's true economy.)
As the drama mounts, Norman begins to crack and shows the first hints of the killer the audience knows he's destined to become. Or is he? "The film is not really a reference point that we really want to be dwelling on too much," Cuse says. "This is not a study in comparative literature. We're really trying to design this show to be watched completely on its own merits. If you're a fan of the original movie, you'll appreciate certain references and homages. ... [But] we're trying to avoid re-telling Hitchcock's story."
In fact, Norman 's first kill may not even come in the first season. "Our goal for this first season was to really establish a mythology for Norma and Norman ... and it's a lot different than what you might imagine," Cuse says. "Our goal is to make you really love and care about Norma and Norman. The show is built for a number of seasons. It is a show that we see having a beginning, a middle and an end, and we're really just telling the beginning in the first season."
Bates Motel premieres Monday at 10/9c on A&E.