A&E certainly has an eye for talent, with the brooding Chloë Sevigny joining the electrifying Vera Farmiga in back-to-back Monday psycho- (or Psycho) dramas. Unfortunately, the former Big Love scene-stealer is not nearly as well served by the unpleasant formula dreariness of Those Who Kill (10/9c), an adaptation of a Danish series that takes a by-the-numbers approach to some truly ghastly serial-killer action.
Troubled hero/heroine? Check. Sevigny glowers intensely as Catherine Jensen, a damaged (who isn't these days) Pittsburgh homicide detective, six months into this gig and already an old hand at skirting protocol and defying authority. Offbeat partner in crime-solving? Check. She seeks out academic forensic psychologist Thomas Schaeffer (James D'Arcy) for advice on an especially grisly case — with the subtext of enlisting him to sort through her own gloomy skeletons — despite her boss's warnings that Schaeffer "goes in too deep, he makes leaps of logic, he's dangerous, people get hurt." Does Those Who Kill refer to the writers beating every cliché of the genre to death?
The villain in the opening episode, who imprisons and torments women in horrific fashion, is heinous enough to qualify for The Blacklist — or maybe he's trying out for the next season of Criminal Minds. A point reinforced when we eavesdrop on one of Schaeffer's lectures: "These minds are dark, monstrous forces to explore. You could get lost and never return. So better take bread crumbs." Lacking the nutritious value of originality, we're left with Catherine's mantra about her prey: "You have to be worse than they are." It doesn't get much worse than Those Who Kill.
At least A&E's Bates Motel, the contemporary Psycho prequel starting its second season (9/8c) on a typically dark and stormy night in Hitchcock pastiche land, has the twisted virtue of its Grand Guignol campiness — epitomized by a scene in which Farmiga's frenetic Norma Bates nags her weirdo son Norman (Freddie Highmore in high twitch mode): "Norman, seriously, you spend too much time in the basement." (He's sharpening his taxidermy tools by working on a dead beaver in the fruit cellar where a ghoulishly preserved Norma will presumably one day reside.) "It's not normal! You need to be out in the world doing normal things."
Doesn't she know normalcy is overrated? It's obviously in short supply in the Twin Peaks-like town of White Pine Bay. While Norman frets over his blackout the night of Miss Watson's murder — she was killed not long after he Peeping Tom'd her (one of many Psycho cues) — Norma is flipping out because the freeway bypass is about to break ground, sealing her motel's financial ruin. And she's currently too proud to take son Dylan's (Max Thieriot) drug money. As the family black sheep descends further into the local underworld, golden-girl Bradley (Nicola Peltz), who pines for Dylan the way Norman pines for her, goes off the deep end searching for answers to her father's murder.
It all builds to Norma's spectacular meltdown before the city council, during which she declares life is a "cesspool you claw and scratch and fight to swim out of but never get to the top!" (Shades of the famous Psycho scene between grown-up Norman and Marion Crane, in which he speaks of how "We're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other.") Even if you're not as crazy about Psycho as I am, Bates Motel has a delirious allure, and its name is Vera Farmiga.
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There's a pretty good Norman Bates joke on this week's episode of CBS's Mom (9:30/8:30c), which boasts its fair share of killer female performances by Anna Faris and Allison Janney as two generations of woman survivors derailed but not defeated by addiction, bad mistakes and families they're forced to raise before they're ready. With a third generation now represented by sullen-and-pregnant Violet (Sadie Calvano), the situations in this sitcom are more pungent than the norm — and when Violet contemplates taking her baby's future into her own hands (and not those of her mom and grandma), it triggers a memorable 20-year flash-forward into a future they'd all probably like to avoid. There's tenderness and true emotion amid the raunchy one-liners in one of the season's few distinctive new comedies.
AYE AYE ROBOT: Fox's futuristic crime drama Almost Human ends its midseason tryout (8/7c) with a case that forces the stoic Detective Kennex (Karl Urban) to reflect on his father's death and tarnished reputation, while his touchy-feely android partner Dorian (Michael Ealy) undergoes a performance review that could decide whether he gets renewed for another term. Not unlike the show itself, which is likely to remain in "on the bubble" limbo until next season's lineup is announced in May. Whatever happens, it goes out on a satisfying note that other producers of "bubble" shows could use as a model for how not to frustrate their fans.
AND KEEP IN MIND: This week's Castle (10/9c, ABC) is an especially strong showcase for Stana Katic as Beckett, who's once again called away from what should have been an amorous lazy afternoon with her fiancé Castle (Nathan Fillion) for a perilous undercover assignment in which she's tasked to impersonate a Russian drug courier. Things go sideways almost instantly, and while Castle feels helpless to save her, Beckett fights back against some powerful, and surprising, foes. ... More great guest casting on NBC's The Blacklist (10/9c), with Oscar winner Dianne Wiest appearing as "The Judge," who operates a secret and deadly Star Chamber exacting justice from judges who've railroaded the innocent. And who's that woman seducing Liz's husband Tom at that teacher's conference in Orlando? Red would like to know, so she'd better watch out. ... If names like Brad Rutter and Eddie Timanus ring a bell, then you are clearly a dedicated and longtime Jeopardy! fan. The syndicated quiz show continues its 30th anniversary "Battle of the Decades" celebration all week (check tvguide.com listings) with a '90s tournament of champions from that decade. Each night's winner will return in May for an ultimate million-dollar showdown. Which answers the question: What's a sure bet for a lightning-fast half-hour of really good TV? ... In case you were looking for the Military Channel on cable, Monday is when it officially becomes the American Heroes Channel — living up to its new identity with the six-part series Against the Odds (10/9c), narrated by Rob Lowe, in which battleground stories from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq are told by surviving veterans.