When, in her famous essay “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf conjured the tragically compelling possibility of Shakespeare’s sister, a new sort of narrative was born — the reclamation of female characters who previously lurked at the edges of epic tales. Queens and consorts, mothers and parlor maids have all gotten their due in retellings of famous works, from the Bible to the tales of Sherlock Holmes.
And now here’s Mama Bates.
The mother of cinematic serial killer Norman Bates is among the most famous off-stage characters in dramatic history. Long dead when we meet her in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” she provides the climax and final twist, but she raises many more questions than she answers. Who on earth was this woman who clearly drove her son to such classic Freudian madness that he would dress in her clothes, talk in her voice and kill comely young women with such abandon?
Vera Farmiga, that’s who, which is reason enough to watch “Bates Motel,” the moody, twisty, creepy and gloriously insane modern prequel to “Psycho” premiering Monday on A&E.; Following the Jessica Lange model of horror as high dramatic art, Farmiga plays Norma Louise Bates, mother to the lanky teenage Norman (Freddie Highmore). Make that single mother; we meet both Norma and Norman as they “discover” the body of Norman’s father in the garage, where he has encountered some sort of deadly “accident.”
It is a strange beginning, overly dramatic, intentionally open to interpretation, but that’s the point. And all Farmiga needs to do is fix the camera with that riptide stare — azure loveliness masking a deadly undertow of ... what? Madness? Deception? Maternal heroism? — and it’s impossible to look away.
The combined talents and pedigrees of executive producers Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) may be why “Bates Motel” got made despite the string of unsuccessful sequels to the original. And Farmiga is the main reason it is so surprisingly good.
Norma is a high-wire character, requiring deft and constant juggling of the believable and the absurd, of the ordinary and the extreme, the beautiful and the repulsive. Farmiga, Oscar-nominated for “Up in the Air,” is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of a performer, while Highmore, most recently the star of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” meets her scene for scene.
Heading up the coast six months after Mr. Bates’ death, Norma’s gentle teasing and her son’s half-heartedly irritated response seem perfectly normal, as does his response — “Mom, this is crazy” — when she unveils their future: the eerie isolated house looming over the dilapidated motel. “We own a motel, Norman Bates,” she says, using a familiar tone of pushy maternal enthusiasm to deliver a line that could just have easily collapsed under pop-culture coyness.
Which is, of course, the biggest challenge of the show itself — to serve the film’s iconic status while essentially undermining its horrifying spareness. Cuse and Ehrin have had to create a story that both makes narrative sense and also meets today’s increasingly high basic cable standards.
An emotionally and physically brutal rape scene kick-starts the main story line — Norman clunks the rapist on the head, Norma stabs him multiple times and now they’ve got a secret — but it also leverages an in-your-face violence that seems intent on putting “Bates Motel” into the ring with such shows as “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” rather than following the tamer template of “Twin Peaks.”
It does resemble the David Lynch series in terms of eccentricity — when Norman suggests they call the police, Norma counters, rather hilariously, that no one will visit “the rape/murder hotel.” They have moved to start their lives over, she continues, her calm giving way to a scream: “And I Am Starting Over.”
Three episodes in, the story is certainly serpentine, at times self-consciously so. But there does appear to be writerly method in the madness. More important, there is Farmiga, and she, like Norma, appears up to any task.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)