The Week in TV

What to watch this week in TV: Psycho prequel series Bates Motel and more

What to watch this week in TV: Psycho prequel series & more

Austin Photo Set: News_WeekInTV0318_Bates Motel_Mar 2013
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga star in A&E's Bates Motel. Joe Lederer

The dead of early spring is nearly over, with high profile premieres like the return of Game of Thrones and Mad Men​ just around the corner. Sneaking in just before those, a prequel to the event of the 1960 film Psycho

Bates Motel
Premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on A&E

In this prequel series to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho by Lost’s Carlton Cuse, the sadistic, lascivious air between Norman (Freddie Highmore) and Norma (a powerhouse Vera Farmiga) Bates casts an eerie, creepy ambience — with a relationship overflowing with the Freudian-Oedipal tinges as this one, it’s no wonder poor Norman becomes a fractured, murderous fiend.

After Norman’s father dies in what appears to be a home accident, his mother relocates them to the Pacific northwest, buying a motel from a foreclosure. But it doesn’t take long for their new beginning to be ruined by betrayal and violence, the pilot setting up a heady case for the teenage Norman, who’d rather try out for the track team and party with girls than unpack his mother’s crazy.

This being Cuse, a few conspiracy rabbit holes get a fresh digging up by adding a sordid mythology behind the motel and the family that owned it. These added plot elements act as an exposition of the showrunner’s own psyche, that Lost-era tendency toward overly convoluted secondary plots. In more ways than Norman and Norma, Bates Motel is about resisting, and failing against, our self-sabotaging temptations.

And even though it takes the characters and many of the touchstones of Hitchcock’s classic, this prequel is at best tangentially related to its source material. This is a closer meditation on damaging relationships — the twisty, consuming kind — borne out of familial ties and flared passions.

It coaxes a particularly rich performance out of Farmiga, perhaps best known as the wry and biting foil to George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, who makes Norma a tremulous neurotic that can lash out like flip of a switch. She’s a different kind of evil, one that you can’t quite tell how deep the sinister penetrates.

So far, that mental mystery is more alluring than Bates Motel’s teenage drama, but it wouldn’t be surprising if this promising enough new series ended up being a true killer. B

Also on this week:

American Winter. Airs Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO. A searing documentary about families struggling during the recession.

Splash. Premieres Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ABC. The same concept as Dancing with the Stars, but with high-diving.

NCIS: Los Angeles. Airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CBS. The backdoor pilot to a possible spinoff, starring John Corbett and Kim Raver.

The Good Wife. Airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS. Matthew Perry guest stars a slippery politician facing off against Chris Noth.

Phil Spector. Airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO. Al Pacino plays the influential (and infamous) music producer in this biopic.