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TV Tonight: Bates Motel

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The first mystery that arises in Bates Motel–the psycho quasi-prequel from producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin–is: what kind of series is this? A crime thriller? A psychological portrait? A teen drama? A Twin Peaks-style weird suspense story?

Maybe the most encouraging thing about this intriguing but imperfect Young Norman Bates Adventures show is that, in a time when dramas are determined to hook viewers with rapid-fire twists, it takes its time answering. It’s not that nothing happens in the first few episodes of this contemporary-set origin story, but much of the early going–probably rightly assuming that viewers know Bates’ story and are on board with the premise–focuses on deliberately setting tone and mood.

It’s a peculiar tone indeed. As Bates Motel (A&E, Mondays, 10 p.m. ET) begins, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and teenage Norman (Freddie Highmore) are packing up and moving to a coastal town after the sudden death of Norman’s father. (A death that, notably, Norma does not seem entirely shocked or broken up by.) It’s an exciting change and potentially a disaster for the single mom and son, who soon have to deal with financial worries and worse threats from some hostile small-town neighbors.

With only each other against a tough world, Norma and Norman are… close. As Psycho intimated, Norma has kept quiet, dutiful Norman smotheringly under her wing, discouraging him from making new friends, much less girlfriends. There are certain boundary issues, as when Norma changes clothes in from of a discomfited Norman and blithely scoffs, “Lord, Norman, I’m your mother! It’s not like it’s weird or anything.”

The show is working in some dangerous mommy-issue-cliche territory here, but it seems to be making an effort to complicate our view of both mother and son. Norma is a suspect character, but Bates Motel also shows that she has reason to be wary of the rest of the world, and Farmiga compellingly shows that her manipulation and coquettishness are weapons of both offense and defense.

Highmore’s Norman, meanwhile, is an embryonic Anthony Perkins, and Highmore conveys his pressured sense of filial duty and confused emotions without going into shrieking-violin pathos. He’s an odd, quiet fit in the world of a modern-day teen drama, and Bates Motel in general feels appealingly unmoored in time. The language and accessories are all modern–characters say “sucks” and use smartphones–but some figures feel like they wandered off the set of an early-’60s movie. (Old movies, in fact, are a recurring motif on the show.)

Bates Motel is one of several new series with serial-killer (or future killer) protagonists, but what distinguishes it from Fox’s shallowly shocking The Following and NBC‘s upcoming manicured gross-out Hannibal is that it takes on the more interesting project of showing how a murderer got that way, rather than just wowing us with how his diabolical mind works. Over the first three episodes, we start to see Norman’s internal pressure and suffering begin to cohere into shape, and that shape, disturbingly, starts to take the form of bound, imprisoned women.

That project–the making-of story of a psychopath–is Bates Motel’s strength, but it could be a fatal weakness. To be fair, I’m guessing that this odd, moody series would never have been made had it not been about one of cinema’s most familiar characters. But since we know where Norman ends up–as well as Janet Leigh–it reduces the stakes. Norman is fighting his demons but, spoiler alert, the demons are going to win.

So Bates Motel has to add a lot of drama around the central premise: a police investigation around the Bateses, a teen-sleuths detective story involving Norman and his new friends, business doings and criminality surrounding their new hometown. The drama may stand or fall on whether all those stories add up to a larger whole, or compete with one another.

As the Star Wars prequels taught us, it’s hard enough telling the backstory of a familiar villain over the course of a few movies with a fixed end. Stretching it out over an indeterminately long series may be even tougher. But at least Cuse and Ehrin are making a thoughtful effort to study how a killer got that way, rather than simply wow us with his artistry. I give them credit for taking a stab.