Psychos are enjoying a TV renaissance, with The Following's poisonously seductive Joe Carroll setting the tone for the creepy comebacks of two of the most infamous fiends in all of pop culture. In a few weeks, NBC will reintroduce audiences to the ravenously deranged Hannibal (as in Lecter), and in case that makes you think about taking a shower, you might want to reconsider, because first up comes Norman Bates, the tightly wound not-quite-hero of A&E's curiously compelling Bates Motel (Monday, 10/9c).
"My mom's just a little ... impulsive," says the shy, pensive Norman (an affecting Freddie Highmore, nicely channeling that gawky Anthony Perkins vibe) in this modern-day Psycho prequel, which focuses on teenage Norman's unusually intimate bond with his pathologically possessive mother Norma (the electrifying Vera Farmiga, equal parts vamp and tigress). In this version of the Bates mythology, mother and son move to a coastal Oregon town several months after Norma is widowed — the circumstances, naturally, are suspicious — and set up shop in the infamous motel which, just like in the Hitchcock classic, sprawls in the shadow of the spooky Gothic house that looms on the hill above.
Awful things transpire in these iconic structures — sure enough, by the end of the first hour, there's a body in a shower/tub just inches away from being detected by nosy local cops (including Lost's Nestor Carbonell) — but the series soon reveals that the town around them teems with evil, and as abnormal as Norma and Norman are, they're hardly the worst monsters around.
"You're different, aren't you?" says a pretty high-school classmate who takes a shine to Norman — if she only knew — later likening him to "a beautiful deep still lake in the middle of a concrete world" and concluding that's he's "weird. Weird good." So's the show.
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PARADISE LOST: Nature doesn't easily give up its secrets, especially when the landscapes are as exotically beautiful and forbiddingly harsh as New Zealand's mountains, woods and mist-shrouded lakes, which provide an evocative backdrop for Sundance Channel's fascinating mystery miniseries Top of the Lake (9/8c, continuing through April 15).
Human nature is just as daunting a puzzle, with its infinite variety of cruelty and quirky pathos, in co-writer/co-director Jane Campion's brooding panorama of a rural community unhinged by the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, who is first seen walking into a lake in an apparent suicide attempt, and is later discovered to be five months pregnant (father unknown).
For detective Robin Griffin (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, sporting a credible accent and impressive emotional commitment), who has returned to this picturesque region from Australia for family reasons, this girl's case affects her quite personally, dredging up her own sketchy past with the locals. Complicating matters is the conflict between the missing girl's father, a bullying criminal (Peter Mullan, riveting) and a commune of damaged women who've settled on land he covets, ironically named Paradise. Overseeing this tainted Eden: a bizarre mystic, G.J. (the scenery-chewing Holly Hunter), who warns Robin upon their first encounter, "The search will bring you low, to the ground, on your two knees." When the missing girl's dangerous dad confronts G.J., demanding to know, "What's beyond the void that's so frightening?" her reply is chilling: "A lost little girl ... with a secret growing inside."
Top of the Lake is reminiscent of AMC's The Killing in ways both good (its moodiness) and unfortunate — Robin has a fiancé back home who keeps pleading for her to return — but its world is so specific and transcendently trippy, haunted by mythic legends rooted in this unforgiving geography, that it feels wondrously fresh, alien and unforgettable.
STEP IN TIME: And so the dance begins again, as ABC's Dancing With the Stars (8/7c) stocks up on spray tan and sequins for a 16th season. The new cast is typically eclectic, if not (on paper anyway) immediately electrifying. There's the usual assortment of clowns (Andy Dick, D.L. Hughley), entertainers (country stars Wynonna Judd and American Idol alum Kellie Pickler, soap hunk Ingo Rademacher, Disney Channel prodigy Zendaya Coleman), reality "stars" (Real Housewife Lisa Vanderpump and newly engaged Bachelor Sean Lowe, who's apparently married to the TV spotlight) and athletes, who tend to become early front-runners, this year including Dorothy Hamill, a presumed favorite because of her elegance and grace on the ice; fellow Olympic gold-medalist, gymnast Alexandra (Aly) Raisman; boxer Victor Ortiz and the NFL's Jacoby Jones, who'd like a mirrorball trophy to better show off his Super Bowl ring. Who'll have surprising moves and who'll have flat feet? That's why we watch.
THAT'S ALL, FOLKS: A burst of finale fever, starting with NBC's The Biggest Loser (8/7c), which not only crowns a winner but celebrates the cast's combined weight loss of more than 1,600 pounds. ... A terrorist threat in the present, engineered from the future, dominates the first-season finale of Syfy's Continuum (9/8c), as Kiera (Rachel Nichols) comes thismuchcloser to learning just why she was thrown back in the past. ... The season (and possibly series) finale of NBC's Deception (10:01/9:01c) promises to reveal who murdered Vivian.
THE MONDAY GUIDE: In case you haven't been keeping up with the news-star musical chairs since CNN's new chief Jeff Zucker took the reins and initiated a talent raid on his rivals, Jake Tapper has left ABC to front a daily news show, The Lead With Jake Tapper (4/3c), starting today as a new lead-in to The Situation Room. ... ABC Family's breakout drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager begins its final season (8/7c, following a daylong marathon that starts at 11 a.m./10c) with Amy buying a thrift-store wedding dress that no one else says yes to. Chaz Bono appears as himself in a cameo. ... TNT's Dallas (9/8c) hopes to capitalize on the plot momentum generated by the revelations following J.R.'s death. ... Fox's Bones (8/7c) looks for suspects in the world of doomsday preppers, while CBS' Hawaii Five-0 (10/9c) recycles a Bones storyline from earlier this season, sending Catherine undercover at a roller-derby rink. Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman and wife Beth appear as themselves in a cameo. ... At least one of tonight's cameos makes sense. Horror director Wes Craven appears as himself on ABC's Castle (10/9c) in a case involving a reputedly "haunted" DVD that may have scared a woman to death. ... Kyle MacLachlan showed a wonderful knack for sly comedy in a recurring role on The Good Wife this season. You'd never know it from the blustery role of The Captain he returns to on CBS' How I Met Your Mother (8/7c). ... The HBO documentary American Winter (9/8c) takes a sobering look at the declining economic fortunes of the middle class, using as its focus eight Oregon families who called Portland's 211info social-services hotline seeking help last winter.
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