It takes a lot of guts to say yes to a reboot of the Psycho franchise. Not only does one have to live up to Hitchcock's great film, but just take a look at all the times Universal has tried to either expand or reboot the story – with most of those attempts being unsuccessful. There were, of course, two direct sequels featuring original star Anthony Perkins in Psycho II and Psycho III. While the first of those sequels was a decent enough film (the second,which Perkins directed, not so much), it never really came close to capturing the brilliance of the original. Then there was both a pilot for a new series (also titled 'Bates Motel') followed by the made-for-Showtime 'Psycho IV: The Beginning' (also starring Perkins), both of which showed just how bad tinkering with Hitchcock's original concept (from a novel by Robert Bloch) could get. There seemed to be hope for the franchise once again when Gus Van Sant filmed a remake of the original story in 1998, but his idea to do a shot-by-shot retelling proved to be more of a snooze than a scream. So when I heard that A&E was coming out with yet another attempt at telling the story of Norman Bates, I was highly skeptical that the series would be any good.
Leave it to Lost writer/producer Carlton Cuse and 'Friday Night Lights' writer/producer Kerry Ehrin (as well as the lesser-known Anthony Cipriano) to give us something worth tuning in for. As Cuse points out in his Paley Center discussion on the extras of this release, 'Bates Motel' takes as much from 'Twin Peaks' as it does the original 'Psycho', giving viewers not just the backstory of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), but presenting a whole town full of weird and quirky characters – each of them possibly harboring dark secrets of their own. The result is a story Hitchcock himself probably would have enjoyed tuning in to see.
The first episode shows how Norman comes across the dead body of his father. This isn't just to set up the fact that Norman will be raised primarily by his mother, but will also prove pivotal to the ongoing story as the episodes unfold. After that brief opening, the show leaps six months forward in time, as Norman and his mother arrive in the coastal town of White Pine Bay, Oregon (changing from the California locale of the original movie) where she's purchased both a house (a loyal rendition of the original, actually rebuilt for the show and not a CGI effect) and the motel it sits above. Not long after moving in, they begin to have issues with the former owner of the property, setting up the first of 'Bates Motel's ongoing storylines.
Had 'Bates Motel' been placed under the care of typical television producers and writers, I have no doubt that the series would stay anchored at the Bates' house/motel with different characters arriving to stay there each week to meet a foul end. Thankfully, Cuse, Ehrin, and Cipriano give us a whole town full of characters worth exploring – many of them with secrets just as dark as the ones Norman and Norma may be hiding. For starters, Norman is given a half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), who is a great addition the 'Psycho' mythology. At first, he comes off as a hotheaded punk, but we soon learn that he's not that bad of a guy at all, and winds up being the character that viewers will relate to the most during the course of the season's 10 episodes. Norman is also given a pair of love interests. There's a hot, but haunted, blonde named Bradley (Nicola Peltz) who is among the first people that Norman meets shortly after arriving in town. Then there's the more demure Emma (Olivia Cooke) who suffers from Cystic Fibrosis. Emma proves to be Norman's partner in many of his adventures. Typical of most kids his age, Norman falls for the hot blonde and remains mostly clueless that Emma is the right girl for him. In addition to the above characters, there's also the town's sheriff (Nestor Carbonell) and deputy (Mike Vogel), Norman's sexy high school teacher (Keegan Connor Tracy), as well as a host of others who pop in and out of the series as it goes along (Justified's Jere Burns shows up about half-way through Season 1 as a particularly creepy guest at the motel).
Another impressive aspect to 'Bates Motel' is that the storyline is constantly unfolding and revealing new twists. There's a main storyline set up between Norma and the town deputy that most series would spend their entire first season developing. Here, the events are wrapped up about half-way through the first season, allowing the second-half of the season to develop brand-new mysteries. The show also builds upon the fact that the home viewer knows the ultimate fate of both Norman and Norma. We know going in that neither of these characters are going to meet a good end, which results in us feeling even more sympathetic for many of the things that happen to them during the course of the show.
If you haven't had a chance to see 'Bates Motel' yet, it really deserves a look. For a series based on material that has been mined over and over again in the past, the series feels remarkably fresh. The producers have taken the rather condensed world of the original concept and opened it up in a way that should prove entertaining for many more seasons to come.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Bates Motel' arrives on Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase, which houses the two 50GB dual-layer discs on the left and right of the inside. The reverse side of the slick details a short synopsis for each of Season One's 10 episodes. The keepcase also contains an insert for an UltraViolet copy of the series and (for a limited time) five glossy postcard-size sketch reproductions of some of the pages of the notebook that Norman finds hidden in one of the motel rooms in the first episode. A slightly embossed slipcover fits over the keepcase with artwork matching the cover of the slick.
The first disc is front-loaded with trailers for Grimm, 'Chicago Fire', Defiance, The Purge, and a promo trailer for Alfred Hitchcock on Blu-ray. The menu takes on the typical Universal design, with selections along the left side of the screen. However, there's just a still of the box cover art on the right rather than a montage of footage from the series.
Shot digitally on Arri Alexa cameras, 'Bates Motel' looks simply fantastic on Blu-ray. Details are top-notch, and viewers will be able to make out both textures and background objects clearly. Skintones are well-balanced and naturally looking. Black levels are deep and inky, making for great shadow delineation throughout. I detected no signs of artifacts, aliasing, banding, or other frequent issues that often occur in an HD transfer. The series was shot on-location in British Columbia, Canada, and this transfer manages to capture all the beauty and lushness of the region.
For some odd reason, the five episodes on Disc 1 are presented using an MPEG-4 AVC codec, but the five episodes on Disc 2 have a VC-1 codec. Potential buyers need not worry, however, as both discs contain the high quality described above and I could detect no difference in appearance between the episodes on Disc 1 versus those on Disc 2. All episodes are presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The only audio option for the episodes is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (the extras, including the deleted scenes, have Dolby Digital 2.0), and they're tracks whose immersiveness relies more on subtle uses of the rear speakers than noticeable directionality. Spoken dialogue, music, and background noises are all properly mixed, and have the kind of crispness that one would expect on this type of release. In addition to its original soundtrack music, 'Bates Motel' makes use of modern songs in most episodes, and at those points the dynamics of the tracks are much more noticeable. All in all, there's not much to complain about here and the lossless tracks are nicely rendered for all 10 episodes.
Subtitles are available in English SDH.
Since so many things could have gone wrong with a reboot of the 'Psycho' franchise, it's really amazing that 'Bates Motel' gets almost everything right. With some wonderful actors in the cast, beautiful (yet often creepy) locations, and a story that never seems to lag, 'Bates Motel' is a worthy new chapter to Hitchcock's original film. Even the lack of significant extras on this release shouldn't prevent one from adding it to their Blu-ray collection. Highly recommended.