The adorably bonkers Bates Motel crashed back onto A&E last night to begin a new season, and slid right back into its uncontested throne as “best show on TV that on paper should be a total calamity.” Just to catch you up to speed if you weren’t watching last year: it’s a prequel to Psycho, although set in contemporary times, about young Norman Bates (Freddy Highmore) and his dotty mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) trying to run their motel business in a small Oregon town beset with homicidal maniacs, Chinese sex slavery, and the like.
It’s Twin Peaks lite with a healthy dash of Hitchcockian mommy issues, and it’s anchored by a Vera Farmiga performance so fierce and overwhelming it makes it tough to watch the show when she’s not onscreen. Sometimes it really feels like that creepy skeleton from the basement in Psycho got up and started walking around. Norma Bates is a nutty force of nature, but she’s not addled the same way that her son is, and she knows it. She’s fully aware that Norman is a compulsive killer—most recently, he killed his teacher in some kind of rage blackout when she came on to him—but she mostly manages to shield him from realizing that truth. At the same time, that protectiveness is probably sealing him into the creepy shell we recognize from Hitchcock’s film.
That’s Bates Motel for you: at times, it’ll tap into real pathos, but then the tone will swing right back to ultra-camp. In the same episode, we’re treated to the dizzying high comedy of Norma trying to single-handedly shout down a highway bypass at a City Council meeting because it’s going to divert traffic away from her motel. She arms herself with a binder she never opens, and seems baffled when local politicians tell her (rather rudely) that just not liking a project isn’t enough to get it canceled.
For reasons unknown to anyone but herself, Norma quickly starts ranting about the town’s creepy underbelly, screaming to the assembled audience, ‘Welcome to the world, ladies! There are axe murderers and whores stuffed under every rug, so your kids better read up on it and get educated because that's what life is! It's a cesspool you claw and scratch and fight to swim out of, but you never get to the top!’
Even in the thin, silly reality of Bates Motel, this speech makes little sense and arrives completely unprompted. But it’s hard to resist the urge to throw Emmys at the screen while it’s happening. Farmiga snuck into the Best Actress category last year, and it was well-deserved. She’s not just going big for the sake of it—she gets that this show should at no point be taking itself seriously (now, if only showrunners Carlton Cuse and Kelly Ehrin would come around to that).
There’s plenty of plots running through this show involving Norman’s wayward half-brother (Max Thieriot), increasingly murderous high school minx Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz), and a morally exhausted sheriff (Nestor Carbonell), but the reason to watch Bates Motel is Farmiga’s fearlessly over-the-top work as a woman walking an increasingly untenable high-wire. She thinks she’s doing the right thing, but somewhere in her subconscious she knows she’s building a monster, and it’s making her crazier with every passing week. Which, in turn, makes this show more watchable with every passing episode.