When Carlton Cuse – one half of the Lost showrunning duo that became known by geeks as “Darlton” (Damon Lindelof being the other half) – was approached to reimagine the story of Psycho for television, he was, he said, “scared.”
“I thought it was a tall order to try to follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock’s movie,” Cuse told me this week. “But I just had a bunch of ideas that I thought were really intriguing, and most of all I was really fascinated by the relationship between Norma and Norman. I was inspired by Christopher Nolan, who had taken the Batman franchise and wholly made it is own.”
And so Bates Motel, which will premiere on A&E on March 18, was born under Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, a former Friday Night Lights writer, with whom Cuse said he experienced “instant chemistry, instant meshing.” The pilot — set in the present — sets up the story of Norma (Vera Farmiga) and her high-school-aged son Norman (Freddie Highmore) Bates, who have moved to a seaside town to start over, and have bought a motel. You know the one.
“You know their inevitable fate,” Cuse said. “But you’re hoping against hope that that fate doesn’t happen to them, because you kind of fall in love with them.”
Things start to go poorly almost immediately, though; I will not spoil how. But there’s light here, too, as Norman begins to make friends at school, and Norma shows her determination to make their lives okay (at all costs).
Cuse said the famous mother/son story is, of course, “a tragedy,” which is “not something that modern television writers get to do a lot.” The twist will be, he hopes, that you root for them.
A&E let us have the three teasers below exclusively. I talked with Cuse about what each one signals to viewers about Bates Motel.
Without revealing whose hand this might be — it happens in the pilot — Cuse discussed the meaning here. “Our show is about people who have very strong desires, and sometimes dark desires,” he said. “They take actions to try to achieve their dreams, and sometimes those actions have dark consequences.”
Emma (Olivia Cooke), who has cystic fibrosis, befriends Norman in school after he has an unfortunate incident in the first episode. If there’s been a regular character on a television show with CF, I can’t remember it. “We were talking about the characters that would populate Norman’s life — who’d be a part of his world,” said Cuse about how they created the Emma character. “We were trying to avoid typical, clichéd teenage portrayals, which is something Kerry did extremely well in her writing on Friday Night Lights. Emma has cystic fibrosis — cystic fibrosis is a nasty disease, and a lot of people who have it have short life spans. We just thought it was really interesting to have a character who’s living very much in the moment, and whose idea of the future is very different from most people’s.”
The look of Bates Motel is stylized; Norma and Norman seem from another era, clashing with the modern world. “We had this idea that here should be a timeless quality to the show in some respects, and then Norma and Norman are kind of out of time – they exist fully focused on each other,” said Cuse.
A rave in the Bates Motel? “We’re trying to shake up the audience’s expectations of what this show is,” he continued. “And I think these images are all kind of ways of reinforcing the fact that that you haven’t seen this story before; this is not a repeat of the same story in the movie Psycho. Not by a long shot. What we liked about it was the juxtaposition of these girls that are dancing with body paint on, and it feels so modern and incongruous in contrast to the motel from the 50s. That sort of what-the-fuck quality is why I think it’s cool.”