not in our stars, but in ourselves
Yesterday, I got sucked into watching an all-day marathon of Law & Order: SVU – you know, as you do – and among the advertisements for catheters, Life Alert, transvaginal mesh lawsuits (!), and that awesome Dikembe Mutombo thing, I kept seeing commercials for a new TV show on A & E: Bates Motel. It is described thus:
Bates Motel is a contemporary prequel to the genre-defining film, Psycho, and promises to give viewers an intimate portrayal of how Norman Bates psyche unravels through his teenage years. Fans will have access to the dark, twisted backstory and learn firsthand just how deeply intricate his relationship with his mother, Norma, truly is – and how she helped forge the most famous serial killer of them all.
And all I have to say is this: are you fucking kidding me.
Are you joking? Are you having a laugh? Because let me tell you – I am not laughing. I find the very notion of “a contemporary prequel” more horrifying than any of Norman’s crimes, and the TV show format as anathematic to the Psycho we all know and love as laissez-faire parenting was to Mrs. Bates.
Obviously, the trouble with a film as successful and groundbreaking as Psycho is that it will almost inevitably spawn imitators. Sequels, prequels, remakes, reimaginations, reboots, etc., etc., ad infinitum and ad nauseum. Certainly in Psycho‘s case, none of them are anywhere near as good as the original. And that’s fine. I’m not such a purist that I object to anyone touching Psycho, or any other classic film. Let them collapse, flimsy imitations that can’t hold up the main themes of their predecessors. Let them go straight to DVD, never to be heard from again.
Television is quite another matter.
For one thing, it’s more in-your-face. With a dud movie, you hear a bit about it before it’s released in theatres, and then you hear a bit about it when it’s released in whatever home-viewing format is current (I realize I’m probably dating myself by referring to DVDs above; future readers will find this and scoff). That’s it. But even a dud TV show is going to plaster itself all over your consciousness on a weekly basis, until it’s canceled. There will be advertisements for it, not only on its own network, but also on other networks owned by the same media conglomerate. There will be mentions in newspapers, trade papers, blogs, Facebook pages. There’s new material every week – it’s easy for it to perpetuate itself in the public’s mind, even if very few people actually tune in.
For another thing – and this is my real quarrel – the nature of 99% of TV shows is such that producers can almost never resist turning a male-female relationship into a romantic relationship. Not merely sexual, or familial, or creepy, or abusive. Romantic. I have $10 in my wallet right now. I will bet you all of it that, at some point, the producers of Bates Motel will insinuate – at LEAST – that Norman and his mother are actually in love. Not that she’s abusing him, and he doesn’t know how else to think. That they are totally, butt-crazy in love with each other. There are some TV shows in which this inevitable progress to romance has been handled relatively well: The X-Files, for instance, in which two attractive single people who had been through wars together would be quite likely to fall for each other; or The Office, either the UK or the earlier seasons of the US version, where two extraordinary people found and rescued each other from a sea of mediocrity. But then there are shows like the aforementioned SVU, where it is constantly implied that Benson and the married Stabler love each other from a tortured emotional distance and physical proximity. There are shows like Castle and Bones and House and Grey’s Anatomy and other absurdities, barely any better than soap operas in terms of their forced chemistry between people who just happen to be in the same place at the same time.
And even if the producers manage to restrain themselves, and portray the mother-son relationship as appropriately repulsive, fan culture is such that I will bet you that $10 and whatever change is at the bottom of my purse that at least some vocal portion of the show’s viewers will find vague hints within the show, seize on them, and “ship” Norman and Mrs. Bates. For those of you who are unfamiliar with fan culture terminology, to “ship” two characters (or real people) is to insist that they are in love with each other, and to craft elaborate fantasies around that perceived romance. Sometimes these feverish basement-dwellers write fan fiction. Sometimes they make fan videos, which consist of particularly “shippy” moments edited together with a treacly pop song over the top. A friend of mine, Sarah Marshall, wrote a great piece about Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling fanfic and videos. It should give you an idea of the Charles Kinbote (sorry, Nabokov) depths of madness possible when you depart from the text.
And I expect nothing else from Bates Motel. I expect that it will be terrible. I expect that it will be a travesty. I hope it will be canceled swiftly, but alas – bad TV lives on much longer than bad movies. Thank heaven for TCM.