Saturday, April 9, 2016

Television Reviews: Bates Motel and Damien

Some stories don't lend themselves to rewarding and interesting prequels. Not everyone has the talent or desire to dream up new backstory for a pre-existing tale, particularly if he or she didn't create the original story. Since we already know the story ending, the narrative conclusion is fixed. The creator may be unable to hold interest with a prequel. But if the original story left previous events unexplained or only vaguely detailed, the creator could make a lavish backstory that's independent.  The creator can birth a new work that expands on and gives new insights into the original story. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn't. Two A&E series, Bates Motel and Damien, provide different examples of prequel/reboot success. Bates Motel, a updated prequel of Psycho, featuring Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is an example of a prequel that works. It has its own energy and plot. Though it's apparently inexorably moving toward the day where Norman will commit matricide and live out his remaining days pretending that he's his mother and "talking" to her, Bates Motel has enough quirks to lure the viewer and get him or her excited and unsure about what happens next. We know the big picture, but the devil's in the details. The Psycho story is stuffed to the brim with Freudian and Oedipal overtones. The show's writing and incisive acting of the two main characters breathe life into a trope that's almost a cliche now. Although the displayed unhealthy mother: son relationship is mostly subtext it's still noticeable enough to make the viewer and some in-universe characters more than a little creeped out. For most parents not named Norma Bates there comes a time when certain parental behaviors or activities aren't appropriate with their child, particularly if the child is opposite sex and post-puberty. Norma Bates is not necessarily an evil woman but she is a manipulative, deceitful and frequently bossy one. In the current season Norma has finally realized that her son Norman is unwell. She can't protect Norman from the outside world or his own demons. 

Well actually, Norma is more worried about protecting herself from Norman. It must be a scary thing to know that a loved one who is physically stronger than you has gone round the bend. Or from Norman's pov it must be a scary thing to know that your mother sees you primarily as an extension of herself.

The viewer can decide if Norma knows that her mollycoddling of and frequent lack of modesty around Norman, recurrent sleeping with him in the same bed, or sudden bouts of rage have helped to further psychologically twist her son. Norman may have just been born bad. At this point (Season 4), Norman has murdered at least 5 people, some of whom Norma doesn't know about. Norma has all sorts of serious emotional damage of her own to process. As a young woman, Norma may or may not have been raped by her brother Caleb (Kenny Johnson from The Shield). The product of this act, Norma's first son Dylan (Max Thieriot) is the relatively reasonable member of the Bates clan. Dylan is surprisingly well adjusted considering that he's recently learned that his father is also his uncle. Dylan has a love-hate relationship with both of his parents.  Dylan tries to look out for his little half-brother Norman when he can. Dylan is also a low key drug dealer/producer/wholesaler with a heart of gold. But that's ok as Norma's new husband, the local sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), is a ranking member of a local syndicate that primarily produces and distributes marijuana. The taciturn, sarcastic, and pragmatic Sheriff Romero is no stranger to murder either, as long as he can justify it by claiming to protect the town. For quite some time Romero has been carrying a torch for Norma while feigning indifference.  Romero agreed to marry Norma so that the couple can put Norman on the Sheriff's medical plan. Got all that? Good because having been guilt tripped by Norma into signing himself into a home for psychologically disturbed people, Norma has come to believe two contradictory things (1) he is Norma and (2) it's Norma who's doing all the killing. It probably doesn't help his fragile state of mind that when Norma's away Norman likes to play dress up. 

For a man who is frightened, resentful or disdainful of most people, ESPECIALLY women, prissy Norman ends up in far too many situations where good looking women want to share something special with him. This usually doesn't end well. So that's a wee bit unrealistic. Bates Motel could continue for another season before I would think it's just going through the motions. There are few signs of rot. Farmiga's Norma is a perfect maelstrom of repressed anger, touching naivete, unreasonable optimism, biting sarcasm, unearned entitlement and frightening coldness. Farmiga is a really good actress. I also believe she's a show producer and director. I freely concede the show can be melodramatic and well, cheesy. But it's good cheese. Maybe catch it before the mold takes over.

Where Bates Motel transitions beyond its source material, Damien takes a different approach. It quotes from the source material in every episode. It uses flashbacks and props from the first Omen movie. Damien tries to position itself as the heir to that movie. It's a sequel of sorts. Obviously the story must play around with the timeline a bit but just as Jesus Christ did not start his ministry until he turned 30, the AntiChrist or first Beast of The Book of Revelation won't discover his purpose until his 30th birthday. Now, given that according to the Book of Revelation, the AntiChrist, the Devil and all their assorted minions, worshippers and supporters will ultimately lose and spend eternity in hell, you might wonder why the forces of darkness would want to start the End Times. Either they are people who lack future time orientation or they think the prophecies are wrong, at least in terms of who wins in the long run. #TeamEvil is ready to throw down. Their putative leader , 30 year old Damien Thorn (Bradley James doing his best to impersonate Supernatural's Jensen Ackles) is an orphaned heir and war photographer who while caught in Middle Eastern turmoil, has an unexplainable experience with an old woman who speaks to him in dead languages. Before too much longer he's having strange dreams, remembering events from his childhood (the first movie), having odd people talk to him about the Beast, and seeing accidents occur all around him. This last is really the ONLY dramatic event that occurs in every episode. I'm serious. About a third of each episode is Damien emoting bewilderment, whining about his life or doing Biblical research. Another third involves people from #TeamEvil or #TeamGood wondering if Damien really knows who he is and if so what that means for their future plans.

And the balance of every episode depicts people who mean Damien harm or are looking too closely into his business coming to unpleasant, bloody and fatal ends. Often this involves Rottweilers. Big nasty silent Rottweilers. If you see a Rottweiler hanging around your house that is your final warning to stop looking into things the Devil doesn't want you to know. On those occasions where a Rottweiller is too obvious, corporate executive Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) is always in the background to defend Damien and deflect attention away from him by any means necessary. She tells Damien, who doesn't remember her, that she's been there since his youth. Apparently she's also the representative of the Thorn estate. The sybaritic Ann is old enough to be Damien's mother but pretty obviously has some intense non-motherly feelings for him, which are not at this time reciprocated. Ann wants to make Damien aware of his true nature. Although Ann is a high ranking member of #TeamEvil, she's not in charge. She doesn't have the whole picture. There are other people aware of Damien's nature who have completely different ideas about how to proceed. But pretty much by definition you don't make your bones as a member of #TeamEvil without being willing and able to do a little judicious backstabbing when needed. And Ann's a vet. She combines a hidden fanaticism with real world wheeling and dealing skills. Like any good corporate player when faced with an order she finds displeasing, Ann will studiously ignore it or reinterpret it to her own advantage. 
Megalyn Echikunwoke provides some babe factor as Simone, the sister of Damien's deceased girlfriend Kelly. Simone didn't want to believe it at first but is starting to become convinced that Damien really is the AntiChrist. It probably won't be too long before Simone starts seeing Rottweilers hanging around her yard. Of course as the damsel in distress/babe you might wonder if she has narrative immunity. Look the first Omen movie was good. The gleeful suicide, ominous dogs, strange accidents, classical music and grim murderous nannies all made the movie work. But times change. In today's world where US allies rape little boys while US military personnel are ordered not to interfere, where people murder albinos for their body parts, where people bomb Easter celebrants just because, where people would rather spend scarce resources on nuclear weapons instead of preventing public defecation and resultant health issues, it might be difficult for some modern viewers to be frightened by the possibility of the Devil and his crew taking over. In some localities it looks like #TeamEvil is already firmly in charge. So this show tries and in my opinion fails to convince us why we should care if Damien accepts that he's Lucifer's son and Hell's champion. Whether it's the writing or the acting or both, James' Damien comes across as nothing more than an empty vessel. He's boring. Of course he's not the only one. Most of the characters are more symbols than people you care about (the clueless good friend who's being set up to be a sacrifice, the skeptical cop, the babe, the Big Bad, etc). 

Only Hershey brings some real brio to her role. It's unusual in American television to see a 68 year old woman vamping it up in a non-ironic or non-comedic role. All the same I don't see how this show makes it to a second season. My interest declined a bit with each episode. The subject matter doesn't lend itself to episodic storytelling.

Bates Motel Season Four Trailer
Damien Trailer

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