Bates Motel is good fun. It’s not going to win any prizes when compared to the finest television drama, but the show is consistently entertaining and the third season exceeded my expectations. In the first two seasons the main plot moved forward quite slowly, but in the third we start to see more and more of the, er, character quirks for which Norman Bates is famous. During earlier episodes it felt at times as if the writers weren’t quite sure where your sympathies were supposed to lie, but by the end of the third season you really do start to feel sorry for everyone who isn’t Norman.
Freddy Highmore is very good as the young Norman Bates, at turns frightening and pathetic. A couple of scenes where he is inhabiting his alter ego are quite entertaining, though obviously disturbing, and he seems like he had a lot of fun doing them. As far as Norma goes, well: ever since The Departed came out I have had a major crush on Vera Farmiga so seeing her in a drama like this, even as the troubled Norma Bates, is a treat. To be fair to the character, Norma actually comes across as more sympathetic in this season, and her manic episodes are fewer; though her behaviour at times is still very destructive and manipulative. On the whole she mainly comes across as a tragic, emotionally broken woman trying to look after her deranged son while contending with her own deep-seated problems. The show has diverged massively from the original film, now, in portraying Norma as such a sympathetic character; but it would have been hard to sustain it for so long otherwise, so I can understand. Also, considering modern sensibilities people might be less inclined to tolerate a Norma Bates as she was depicted in Hitchcock’s film.
I don’t generally like to go on about actors, but with Bates Motel you have to acknowledge that the supporting cast is tremendous. Max Thieriot, Olivia Cooke and Nestor Carbonell are all great to watch, and it’s nice to see some old Sons of Anarchy favourites make an appearance in Kenny Johnson and Ryan Hurst. Some of the writing is impressive, too, and I particularly liked the way they handled a reconciliation of sorts between Norma and a hated figure from her past. It felt like the writers were trying to deal with a complex issue in a non-judgmental and mature way and that’s always refreshing. In a show like this there must be a big temptation to focus on the more lurid aspects of the story and it’s to their credit that they generally rise above that.
The Oregon setting is well-chosen and certain aspects of this season lend it a sort of Twin Peaks-esque feel. The central story here is about Norman and Norma but there is something deeply wrong about the town of White Pine Bay, and each season keeps peeling away at the corruption and deceit that encases the town. With the show having been renewed through to season five, it will be interesting to see what other secrets will be revealed.