Sometime last year a friend of mine recommended I watch Bates Motel, a show about a young Norman Bates. For those of you who don’t know who Norman Bates is – we can’t be friends. Also he’s the killer from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He was played perfectly by Anthony Perkins in the original movie. Now this particular friend of mine has occasionally wonderful taste, and very similar interests. She also occasionally has completely terrible taste, so I didn’t exactly leap out to watch Bates Motel. In fact I think my response was “watch Hannibal instead.” NBC’s Hannibal was created by Bryan Fuller, the creator of Pushing Daisies. The current seasons present a prequel of sorts; they’re set prior to any of the books featuring Hannibal. Fuller, however, plans to devote seasons to adapting the books down the line.
Almost a year later I got my friend to watch Hannibal and the first season of Bates Motel came to Netflix. I had seen the show mentioned on Twitter a few days before, so I remembered it existed. This may not seem that significant, but it was more than you could have said the day before. Not entirely of my own volition, not that I was against it or anything, I watched the pilot of Bates Motel. It was a sputtering piece of shit.
Bates Motel fans who aren’t going to be able to cope with criticism should get off here.
The show opened with a young Norman Bates’s dad dying. We have never met these characters before, and no part of this generates any emotion, intensity, or interest. Which is just what you want from the opening of a show! So then Norma Bates uproots her life and her kid and buys a motel near a town we never see but we are to assume is tiny and rednecky. Not to rewrite a show from my couch but there’s such a distractingly simple way the show could’ve generated interest. It seems pretty obvious to me that the show plans to “reveal” that Norma killed Norman’s dad. Instead of holding back that information the show could’ve provided it from the beginning. Then the fact that Norma was a potentially crazy murderer might have helped to sustain some interest.
Now the Norms live in this motel. At some point a drunken guest star whose family used to own the motel threatens them. Norman waits for his bus on his first day of school when five very pretty teenage girls drive him away to school in a shiny convertible. I live in a rednecky town and I can assure you I’ve never seen a single good-looking girl in a convertible, let alone five. An old man in a convertible maybe, but I would honestly be less surprised to see a unicorn than the spectacle in Bates Motel. Not only that, the girls appear to flirt and drive with some skinny awkward new kid they couldn’t possibly have heard about. I fully thought this was going to be a fake out, some sociopathic (I know psychopath is the current term, and sociopath is utterly out-dated, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound so much better) delusion. It made me start to wonder if this was meant to be a comedic show.
So some nonsense happens at school and then Norman gets invited to a party. Then his mum says no. Then he sneaks out and, holy crap, this show has tricked me into watching Degrassi High but with a future serial killer. It’s like some CW super-hero show, but with Norman Bates. The party scene, complete with awkward flirting based around the phrase “you’re not like everyone else” or some similar bullshit, had me laughing so hard I was literally keeled over. It had me laughing so hard I wondered if it was intentional. Then Norman’s mother gets horrifyingly raped by the drunken guest star. It’s a seriously bizarrely graphic for a network show, and utterly upsetting. Though it is underscored by a silly “I’m calling for Norman but he’s at a party oh no” thing. Norman does arrive, and Norma murders the drunk redneck. Norman helps her hide the body. The motel rooms already have bird paintings (even though Norman put those there in Psycho, that’s the whole point!). Somewhere in here Norman discovers a bunch of sketches in a book. The sketches are of imprisoned and clearly molested and tortured girls. The only other interesting thing that happens this episode is the reveal that whoever did these sketches might still be active. Oooooooooh.
Having just watched the pilot of Hannibal I felt like I was in a unique position to compare the two serial killer prequel shows. Well, “unique” is a stretch. What I felt was that it was a thing already happening in my head and I felt like writing it down.
The pilot of Hannibal is instantly engaging. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is an emotionally stunted empath who has the unique ability to understand just about anyone. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) wants to use Will’s ability to help catch a serial killer who’s targeting young, almost identical women. Graham starts to figure things out, but Jack’s research leads him to worry about Will’s mental health. So he asks brilliant psychologist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) to keep an eye on him. Hannibal Lecter goes so far as to commit a copycat murder to help Will see the “negative” of the original crime. Obviously Hannibal Lecter is that Hannibal Lecter, the famous fictional cannibal.
Will and Hannibal catch the killer, who kills his wife and almost kills his daughter in his panic. Will ends up killing him, and the show leaves us with the suggestion that Will might’ve gotten too close to the killer’s mental state.
Now there are some immediate, obvious, differences between the two shows. Hannibal is stunning. The costuming, the set design, the cinematography all lend the show a sumptuous, eye-catching quality. It’s easily one of the most unique shows on TV, from a visual standpoint. Not only that, the cast is head and shoulders above Bates Motel. Mikkelson is nothing short of brilliant as the titular killer, but the rest of the cast is pretty damn compelling too. The biggest difference, however, is that Hannibal feels so much more cohesive.
Hannibal feels like a show, Bates Motel feels like a bunch of disparate scenes.
I was confused watching the escapades of a young Norman Bates. I couldn’t identify the tone of the show. I wasn’t interested in the show. I didn’t know who the main character was. I couldn’t even hazard a reasonable guess as to what episode two would bring. I don’t know what the ongoing plot of Bates Motel would even look like.
The difference comes down to the initial thought; the foundation that went into these two seemingly similar shows. Obviously the shows are not on the same strata. Hannibal is, all around, superior to Bates Motel. The direction, writing, acting, scoring, costuming, sets, visual effects, gore, everything. It’s just better. The fascinating thing is that there’s such an obvious problem at the core of the Bates Motel pilot.
Because a pilot shouldn’t be confusing.
It can be mysterious. And clearly Bates Motel thought it was being mysterious. But by holding back so many pieces of information, it loses opportunities to be compelling. A pilot should be, above all else, compelling. It should make you want to tune in again.
One thing that you absolutely need in a show to make me tune in again? It’s not skilled craft, though that’s a huge factor for geeks like me. The number one thing? I need to know what the fuck your show is about. It seems so obvious right? And yet when the first episode of Bates Motel ended I had no earthly idea what that show was about. Lots of people like to come up with a single sentence descriptor of a show or movie – the kind of thing you would use to pitch it. Hannibal‘s could be something like “an unusual man consulting for the FBI doesn’t realize he’s working with Hannibal Lecter.” Bates Motel‘s would be something like “a show about young Norman Bates.” See the difference?
The difference is only one of those descriptors provides any drama. Only one explains where the main tension and story will come from. Hannibal‘s simple concept, when used as a backbone, allows for all kinds of complex stories and wrinkles to be mixed in, like the continuing changing state of Will Graham’s psyche. Bates Motel‘s concept doesn’t give the slightest hint as to the overarching drama at the core of the show. And after the first episode, it seems like that concept really does properly reflect the show. Because, based on the pilot, that show has no idea what it’s about. And so it feels scattered, atonal, and uninteresting. And it certainly doesn’t make me want to watch the show again. And I watched the entirety of Terra Nova.
Now it’s completely possible Bates Motel improves as it goes along – Hannibal certainly does. But it’s worth noting that, about halfway through this article, I asked that same friend if she was still watching Bates Motel. She’s not. She is enjoying Hannibal though.
This is pretty plainly a golden age for TV. Some of the best shows ever have aired recently, and there are plenty of shows that might not be top tier, but are absolutely great. Bates Motel is not one of them. Hannibal might be. Hannibal is fantastic. It’s seriously wonderful stuff, and Bryan Fuller’s plans for future seasons are brilliant. But it needs more of an audience. It’s a complex story, so I wouldn’t normally advise this, but please start watching Hannibal. Stop watching crap and help ensure Hannibal gets seen through until its end.