In hindsight, the task of building a satisfying series prequel around “Psycho” appears insurmountable — especially since it’s hardly a secret this is not going to end well. Although the show features splendid central performances from Freddie Highmore as a 17-year-old Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his possessive mother Norma, sustaining an ongoing franchise around the making of a monster — as opposed to, say, a limited run — looks fraught with peril, and destined to quickly strain credibility. Audiences have demonstrated a taste for even flawed horror, but after almost-certain sampling, keeping “Bates Motel” open should be its own nightmare.
Even before producers Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”), who share story credit with Anthony Cipriano, get into the meat of the story, “Bates” makes an understandable if problematic mistake, transposing a tale most are familiar with in grainy black-and-white to a contemporary setting. Yes, Norman is lonely and alienated after the sudden death of his dad, but he even has an iPhone to help keep him company, for heaven’s sake.
Seeking a fresh start, Norma purchases a small seaside motel (dubbed, misspelling and all, the Seafairer) just off the highway. Norman is quickly befriended by some of the locals (girls, for whatever reason, keep flocking to him), pushing the possessive Norma toward “Mommie Dearest” mode.
The town of White Pine Bay, meanwhile, harbors its own secrets, and an unfortunate, extremely ugly encounter in the first episode teaches mother and son a thing or two about disposing of inconvenient bodies, while putting both on the radar of the sheriff (“Lost’s” Nestor Carbonell) and his deputy (Mike Vogel, in a post-“Pan Am” landing).
The challenge, obviously, is to begin boring in on the pathological aspects of the mother-son relationship with which we’re familiar from the original movie without making them so over the top as to send the program skidding off the rails. In that regard, Highmore’s innate likability and vulnerability (the adorable little boy from “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is more than plausible as a young Tony Perkins) almost works against the narrative arc, making his inevitable fate a nagging source of discomfort, if not outright depression.
Perhaps that’s why by the third episode (which includes a notable homage to the movie) “Bates Motel” has strayed into territory more closely resembling “Twin Peaks,” with mysterious plots and hidden rooms, causing one to wonder whether the members of the Bates family might actually be the most normal folks in town.
To their credit, the producers do keep things interesting, for the most part without resorting to the cheap tricks that have characterized the vastly overrated “American Horror Story.” Nevertheless, the premise becomes its own creative prison, fostering a hurry-up-and-wait attitude as the story metes out its examples of the things that make this duo, well, different.
Admittedly, TV has no shortage of antiheroes, but portraying the notorious one featured here represents an extremely delicate balancing act — particularly when this innocent, fresh-faced version of Norman looks like he wouldn’t even hurt a fly.