[bold]Mother, as She Lives and Breathes[/bold]
A series called “Bates Motel” can’t open with a shower scene. But since this new drama, starting Monday on A&E, is, after all, a prequel of sorts to the movie “Psycho,” homage had to be paid to Alfred Hitchcock upfront. The creators went with that director’s sly sense of humor.
The first shot shows a scene from “His Girl Friday” flickering late at night on an old television set.
“Are you going to live with your mother?” Cary Grant’s character naughtily asks his ex-girlfriend’s fiancé. The man earnestly replies, “Just for the first year.”
“Bates Motel” tells the story of the young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), a bright, sensitive teenager who after his father’s death moves to a dilapidated motel on the coast — with his smothering mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga).
It’s less a horror story than it is a bildungsroman of the budding psychopath.
And this prequel is hardly the only one preying on popular works of entertainment. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which explores a pre-Dorothy Emerald City, is a hit in movie theaters. “Wicked,” the beloved musical about the girlhoods of the witches of Oz is still, nearly 10 years on, a Broadway smash.
“The Carrie Diaries,” on the CW, looks at a teenage Carrie Bradshaw fretting about sex in high school, not the city. “Smallville,” an earlier CW show, was about Superman before he was even a man; the story began when Clark Kent was a teenager. The 2009 “Star Trek” movie, directed by J. J. Abrams, imagined Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk when they were still fresh out of Starfleet Academy.
Antiheroes are just as popular: practically every phase of Hannibal Lecter, the serial-killer savant from “Silence of the Lambs,” has been explored; even his youth was mined in the 2007 film “Hannibal Rising.” (The Nazis made him what he is.) So “Hannibal,” a new NBC series that begins in April, catches up with the villain a little later, when he was a midcareer cannibal.
Studios and network executive are risk averse, and prequels, which can stretch a franchise in the opposite direction of time, provide a slightly more imaginative way of cashing in on success than remakes. For screenwriters it’s an exercise in curtailed creativity, like an architect designing an addition to a landmark.
Of course “Psycho” has a more definitive and downbeat ending than most, and a lot of viewers know the story, even if they never saw the movie, and can predict where Norman and his mother are headed.
On one level the series explores the twisted steps that led Norman to his fate. The creators made “Bates Motel” less an exercise in “what if” than an “if only” — keeping viewers wondering whether, with some intervention or lucky break, the ultimate mama’s boy could come to a different end. But the series has to keep the narrative going and needs to add surprise turns that could affect Norman’s destiny. It does so by introducing layers of invented subplots that weave into Norman’s life, for good and evil.