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"Bates Motel": Season One Blu-ray + Digital UltraViolet Review

Bates Motel: Season One Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Bates Motel: Season One (2013)
Show & DVD Details

Developers: Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, Anthony Cipriano / Executive Producers: Mark Wolper, Roy Lee, John Powers Middleton, Kerry Ehrin, Carlton Cuse

Writers: Kerry Ehrin, Carlton Cuse, Jeff Wadlow, Bill Balas, Anthony Cipriano; Robert Bloch (novel)

Directors: Tucker Gates, Paul Edwards, Johan Renck, David Straiton, SJ Clarkson, Ed Bianchi

Regular Cast: Vera Farmiga (Norma Louise Bates), Freddie Highmore (Norman Bates), Max Thieriot (Dylan Massett), Olivia Cooke (Emma Decody), Nicola Peltz (Bradley Martin)

Recurring Characters: Nestor Carbonell (Sheriff Alex Romero), Mike Vogel (Deputy Zack Shelby), Jere Burns (Jake Abernathy/Joe Fioretti), Ian Tracey (Remo), Keegan Connor Tracy (Miss Watson), Ian Hart (Will Decody), Diana Bang (Jiao), Vincent Gale (Gil), Richard Harmon (Richard Sylmore), Terry Chen (Ethan Chang), Hiro Kanagawa (Dr. Kurata), David Cubitt (Sam Bates), Emmalyn Estrada (Hayden), Jenna Romanin (Jenna), Brittney Wilson (Lissa), Conchita Campbell (Kennedy), Farrah Aviva (Receptionist), Aliyah O'Brien (Regina)

Notable Guest Stars: W. Earl Brown (Keith Summers), Topher Allen (Tweaker), Lara Gilchrist (Rebecca Craig), Ben Cotton (Danny), Alexander Calvert (Ra'uf), Paul Jarrett (Principal Tom Hutchins), Jillian Fargey (Maggie Summers)

Running Time: 434 Minutes (10 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated (TV-14 on air)

1.78:1 Widescreen / 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (English) / Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Suggested Retail Price: $49.98 / Blu-ray Release Date: September 17, 2013
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50s) / Blue Keepcase in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
First Season Airdates: March 18, 2013 - May 20, 2013
Also available on DVD ($44.98 SRP), Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Instant Video HD

Buy Bates Motel: Season One from Amazon.com Blu-ray DVD Instant Video Instant Video HD

Alfred Hitchcock made over 50 movies, many of which today are considered sacred works of art. And yet, perhaps the most sacred of them all, Psycho (1960), is also the only one that has inspired continuation and reinterpretation. From the three Hitchcock-less sequels that kept Anthony Perkins occupied through 1990 to Gus Van Sant's ill-advised,
nearly shot-for-shot 1998 remake to last year's behind-the-scenes docudrama Hitchcock, Hollywood can't seem to leave Hitch's biggest hit alone.

A&E's "Bates Motel" is actually the second attempt to set a television series at Psycho's main locale. The first was a 1987 pilot starring Bud Cort, Lori Petty, and Jason Bateman that wasn't picked up by any network and wound up airing as a TV movie on NBC. A&E has already gone further with a 10-episode first season finished and a second on the way.

Debuting last March, this hour-long drama series relocates its venue from California to Oregon and brings us into the present day to focus on a 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his dear mother Norma (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air, The Departed). Six months after Norma becomes a widow under somewhat suspicious circumstances, the Bates move from Arizona to White Pine Bay, Oregon (which Vancouver stands in for), where on a whim Norma uses some of her husband's insurance payout to purchase the foreclosed, off-highway Seafairer Motel and the nearby Gothic Victorian house that comes with it. She intends for mother and son to reopen the establishment, a plan that seems foolhardy after she learns of plans to construct a new bypass that would push the hotel out of the way for most travelers.

The contemporary setting takes some adjusting to. The presence of drugs, dance clubs, and texting immediately feels wrong, and unexpected because Norman's fashion sensibility is consistently at least thirty years behind the times. The motel is old, as is the notion to fix up such a place in this age of chains. Putting the Bates in 2013 seems like a creative compromise, but one A&E was willing to make as it goes looking for the kind of passionate followings its basic cable brethren have found in recent years. "Bates" is only A&E's second original scripted series and its expectations are clearly higher than those placed on the western crime drama "Longmire."

A&E's "Bates Motel" finds Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) opening the titular establishment in Oregon with help from her two sons (Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot).

"Bates" lays a solid foundation with the casting of its two lead roles. Norman Bates is a good character for Freddie Highmore, who at 21 is definitely still dealing with the awkward years that break many a former child actor. By portraying this iconic character, capably adopting an American accent, and only occasionally channeling Perkins, Highmore has revived his visibility and is able to display his acting talents on a regular basis. The gangling Brit seems a perfect fit for a part Oz Perkins might have played twenty years ago.

In the equally juicy role not exactly personified in Hitchcock's film (for obvious reasons), Vera Farmiga is great. This is a part that easily could have gone to a TV veteran or a former movie star on the decline.
That it instead is filled by a recently Academy Award-nominated actress who remains in demand and present in feature films is encouraging. Farmiga, the target of the series' only Emmy nomination, is the best thing about "Bates Motel", a show at times she feels too good for. The actress not only adds clout to the series but also elevates the caliber of acting in every scene she's in. And having just turned 40, Farmiga is wise to supplement her film career and provide weekly reminders of just how qualified she is for a wide variety of big screen work.

Without the connection to classic cinema and two accomplished film actors in the lead roles, "Bates Motel" would not seem so special. Its depictions of everyday local citizens in this former logging town are not the most realistic. Norman effortlessly acquires two love interests by the end of the first episode: unbelievably welcoming, popular hot girl Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz) and the sweet, cystic fibrosis-addled Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke). While Bradley takes Norman's virginity, it's Emma who partners with him on an episodes-long mystery involving a handwritten "manga" that's found under the carpet in one of the motel's rooms. No work of fiction, the lurid account of Asian sex trafficking leads the two teens sleuthing into a sordid conspiracy that seems to overlap with White Pine Bay's thriving, officially overlooked marijuana farm industry. Obviously, a show adapting a movie needs stories that can unfold over the course of weeks, but this material doesn't scream "Hitchcock" at all.

Meeting expectations a little more squarely is the narrative surrounding Norma Bates, whom the series quickly escalates into a murderer and body disposer. The victim is a drunk, degenerate intruder and rapist completely robbed of sympathy in his few minutes of living screentime. Still, Norma's reaction goes beyond self-defense and she compounds the act by covering it up with Norman's help. It's a lot to swallow in the show's very piloty first episode that somehow wasn't shot as a pilot since A&E had already ordered ten episodes before cameras began rolling. Norma's deception puts her in the crosshairs of White Pine Bay's overly suspicious yet conveniently unobservant Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell). It also plants the seeds for Norma's secret romance with the sheriff's unscrupulous deputy Zack Shelby (Mike Vogel), a valuable ally for a potential murder suspect.

Frustratingly, the series builds all these tense threads over the first six episodes, only to eliminate all of them in the course of a 30-second conversation at the start of Episode 7. It's not unheard of for a television show to hit the "Reset" button, but to do so two-thirds into a season that was doing just fine is strange. It serves as a warning that any emotional investment gradually cultivated here be undone in about as much time as you'd need to recover from hearty back-to-back sneezes.

Former child actor Freddie Highmore plays teenaged Norman Bates in "Bates Motel." Emmy and Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga is Norma Bates, his overbearing mother.

Paying some homage to Hitchcock's thriller but far less than you'd expect, "Bates Motel" is primarily interested in being its own small-town mystery series. The show gives an expected air of incest to the unhealthy relationship between Norma and Norman Bates. Each is very protective of the other, acting jealous in the face of potential romance. Each is also prone to outbursts of rage, with Norman even blacking out at times. The mother and son's close yet volatile bond, suggested by Hitchcock's film, is the most compelling thread of this series and perhaps the only one that keeps it going past the week-to-week storylines that aren't above stupid and preposterous twists or storylines that simply trail off.

Though "Bates" definitely does not immediately make the impression of substantial television worthy of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad"-type obsession, it has the potential to get there. It also has the potential to experience a quick, irreversible decline. It's tough to imagine this series running more than a few seasons, or having enough creativity to do so in a satisfying way. As a prequel, we obviously know the destination. But the series has an infinite number of ways to get us there, or perhaps just hint at it. There are enough teases to align with our general expectation of how this journey will play out. The material is compelling enough to enjoy watching in spite of some obviously faults that could easily be wrinkled out in time.

After airing in the spring on its own schedule, "Bates Motel" hit stores last week, contributing to the now-standard September TV-on-DVD boom. In addition to a three-disc DVD, Universal treated Season One to the two-disc Blu-ray + UltraViolet release we review here.

Norman (Freddie Highmore) wastes no time in making a friend and love interest in the welcoming Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz). White Pine Bay's Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) and Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel) have questions for Norma Bates.

Disc 1

1. "First You Dream, Then You Die" (48:03) (Originally aired March 18, 2013)
Norman awakens to find his father dead, prompting his and his mother's move to start anew in White Pine Bay. Norman quickly makes friends, whom he sneaks out to hang with, only to leave his mother vulnerable to a life-altering attack from the hotel's disgruntled longtime owner (guest star W. Earl Brown).

2. "Nice Town You Picked, Norma..." (42:55)
Norman's newly unemployed 21-year-old half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) moves in and quickly finds a shady new business opportunity. Sheriff Romero questions Norma about Keith Summers' disappearance, while Deputy Shelby invites her to meet him at the Woodchuck Festival. Norman and Emma begin looking into the found diary.

Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot) finds work as a pot field guard. Half-brothers share a motorcycle ride in "Trust Me."

3. "What's Wrong with Norman" (42:52) (Originally aired April 1, 2013)
Norman and Emma dig deeper into their mystery. Some incriminating evidence arises in the case against Norma. Dylan starts his dangerous new job.

4. "Trust Me" (43:07) (Originally aired April 8, 2013)
As things heat up between Norma and Deputy Shelby, he reaches out to a distrustful Norman, taking him fishing. Meanwhile, tensions between Norman and Dylan cool off as Dylan gives him some brotherly girl advice.

5. "Ocean View" (42:50) (Originally aired April 15, 2013)
As Norma sits in jail, Norman tries to get her out. When a co-worker is shot after giving him a big loan, Dylan serves up prompt street justice. Shelby cleans up a mess at his workplace.

After a harrowing evening, Norma (Vera Farmiga) lets Dylan (Max Thieriot) know the truth behind Norman's father's death. The good news: Bates Motel has its first paying guest. The bad news: it's this creepy creep, Jake Abernathy (Jere Burns).

Disc 2

6. "The Truth" (42:24) (Originally aired April 22, 2013)
Dylan gets assigned a new work partner (Ian Tracey). Norma, Norman, and Emma decide how to deal with the rescued sex slave. Dylan and Norman recover the incriminating belt and plan to get their own place. After a skirmish at the motel, Norma reveals the truth behind Norman's father's death.

7. "The Man in Number 9" (43:06) (Originally aired April 29, 2013)
Their problems swiftly cleared, the Bates make final preparations to open the motel. Tainted by gossip, though, business is slow and non-existent save for creepy salesman Jake Abernathy (Jere Burns), who is looking to resume his regular bimonthly business there. Norma lectures Norman on sex, as word of it spreads through school and Bradley rebuffs him.

At what age does a mother-son snuggle get weird? Attending their school's winter dance together, Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) see their relationship take one step forward and two steps back in the season finale.

8. "A Boy and His Dog" (42:53) (Originally aired May 6, 2013)
Emma's father (Ian Hart) teaches Norman taxidermy, to Norma's concern. Norma tries to fight the planned bypass construction. At the recommendation of Norman's teachers troubled by his emotional instability, he and Norma see a therapist. Dylan and Remo take an overnight business trip to Fortuna, California, where emotions flare.

9. "Underwater" (43:03) (Originally aired May 13, 2013)
Norman excels at school, with Language Arts teacher Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) encouraging him to have his short story published. Dylan brings his workers to stay at the motel, where their pot usage offends Norma, who puts the motel back on the market and plans another move.

10. "Midnight" (43:05) (Originally aired May 20, 2013)
Norma tries therapy and opens up briefly about her childhood, but reveals a different and darker upbringing to Norman alone. Norman attends a winter dance with Emma, where he is confronted by Bradley's sleepy boyfriend and winds up at Miss Watson's house.

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) sits proudly in front of the motel she spontaneously decides to purchase in the premiere episode of "Bates Motel."

VIDEO and AUDIO

"Bates Motel" is clearly shot on digital video, but with professional grade cameras, allowing it to look like a new film. The 1.78:1 picture seems a tad dark at times, but is generally great and suitably cinematic. Five hour-long episodes might sound like a lot to cram onto each disc,
but with little in the way of bonus features, these dual-layered Blu-rays pull it off with nary a problem and space to spare.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio sound is very strong and sufficiently immersive, with ambient noises commanding notice on scenes set in Norman's high school. The crisp mix is very comparable to that of a new movie. You're unlikely to need to consult the provided English SDH subtitles, except perhaps to confirm that your ears didn't deceive you and that Norman actually says "You're freaking out all over Italy" at one point. The show features very little profanity and none of it worse than variations of the S-word.

While transferring an HD television series to Blu-ray is a standard affair these days, it's still satisfying to see it done without a hitch.

Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) encourages Norman publishing his short story in this Disc 2 deleted scene. Stars Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga sit at the right end of the Shawn Ryan-moderated Bates Motel panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray is lighter on bonus features than you'd expect.

Deleted scenes appear on the same disc as the episodes they were intended for. They are presented in the same quality as the show, but only two channels of sound. Half of Disc 1's lot (10:26) were intended for the first episode, including some solo moments, Dylan's side of his phone call to Norma,
and the introduction of a neighbor who welcomes Norma with artisan pork and an offer to set her up with local divorced men. Beyond that, we mostly get throwaway moments, like sex slave Jiao accepting food but rejecting police assistance and an addition to the Bates family's tense breakfast.

Disc 2 serves up deleted scenes from another four episodes (9:22), most of which stem from the season finale. There's more with Dylan and Remo at the pot plant, where they discuss Bradley's late father, and there's a long scene where Norma fears she's being followed by Jake Abernathy.

The only other extra is a welcome cast and crew panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media (45:39), moderated by veteran TV producer Shawn Ryan and featuring developers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin alongside cast members Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot, Nestor Carbonell, and Nicola Peltz. After Cuse confesses, "We pretty much ripped off 'Twin Peaks", his fellow panelists thoughtfully discuss the pressures of being compared to Psycho, the ambiguous nature of their characters, and their collaborations. The final few minutes open the floor to crowd questions, which are good. For some reason, this looks like it was shot in the 1990s, appearing in 1.33:1 standard definition.

Disc One opens with trailers for "Grimm", "Chicago Fire", "Defiance", The Purge, and The Best of Alfred Hitchcock on Blu-ray. The same disc's Previews submenu adds ads for "House": Seasons 1-8, "The Hollow Crown": The Complete Series, "Covert Affairs": Season 3, and "Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome."

The static menu reproduces the cover art image, with score. Though not equipped with bookmarking, the Blu-rays do better by enabling you to resume playback (though replaying previews or logos while letting you decide if you want to). The "Play All" feature interestingly gives you the option to return to the top menu between episodes. Each episode is divided into four chapter stops, corresponding with act/commercial breaks.

The two discs share a standard Blu-ray keepcase, which uses the reverse side of the cover artwork to supply episode synopses. Topped by an embossed slipcover, the case also holds an insert with directions and your unique code for accessing the complimentary UltraViolet stream of these episodes. For a limited time only, the case also carries collectible sketches from Jiao's notebook. These five glossy postcard feature drawings (one with Japanese symbols) relating to the diary Norman finds in the season. It's not exactly "find a wall!" material.

The iconic main setting of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is now home to weekly drama on basic cable television.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While A&E's "Bates Motel" is no modern-day successor to Alfred Hitchcock, it makes for passable cable drama largely on the basis of its well-cast actors. The project is bold enough to expect something much better or much worse, so this middle-of-the-road execution is unexpected, but still highly watchable and plenty entertaining.

Universal's Season One Blu-ray is a pretty straightforward release, treating these ten episodes to stellar picture and sound plus a small but suitable collection of extras. I don't think enough of the series to recommend purchasing it blindly, but fans should be pleased with this good, basic presentation and the uninitiated ought to give the show a look one way or another.

Buy Bates Motel: Season One from Amazon: Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video / Instant Video HD

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Reviewed September 24, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 NBC Studios, American Genre, Kerry Ehrin Productions, Universal Television, A&E and Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
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