At first I avoided Bates Motel – for no real reason. I had no expectations going in, and I did not realize until I started watching that the formidable Vera Farmiga is one of the main players. This makes Bates Motel automatically worth at least trying out. Then realizing that Nestor Carbonell is the town sheriff seals the deal.
While I could spread on thick layers of superlatives about Farmiga’s range and talent, I would rather write a brief love letter to Carbonell. I love how he pops up frequently and, of course, is very different in each role – as quality acting requires. Whether he is hero, villain or somewhere in between (as is the case in Bates Motel), he delivers. But what I love about him most of all is looking back on his comedic role in the gone and mostly forgotten Suddenly Susan in the 1990s. A starring vehicle for Brooke Shields (and also starring Judd Nelson and Kathy Griffin), the show was usually stolen out from under Shields and the rest of the cast by Carbonell as Luis Rivera and the late David Strickland as Todd Stities. Together, this duo stole many scenes and kept me watching even when the show was annoying (and believe me – it grew increasingly so). (Interestingly the show also humanized Shields a bit for me – and I had never really cared much for her work before.)
Sadly, Strickland committed suicide at the age of 29 in 1999 (RIP) – but Carbonell, happily, was just getting started. He has turned up everywhere – both in one-time guest roles in popular TV shows and in longer-term appearances, such as a role in one-time network ratings juggernaut, Lost.
With Farmiga and Carbonell at the helm, Bates Motel really seems to work and stand out. Even the sometimes overly dramatic tone and plot are deftly managed in these actors’ hands. Many of the other actors are all right – kind of a go-to list of every non-descript Canadian actor who turns up in every Canadian or Canadian-produced show (for example, Ian Tracey as “Remo” – I stared at him for ages before realizing he was one of the stars of the Canadian legal drama Da Vinci’s Inquest – something that was never shown any time that I lived in the US but did turn up on late-night TV in Iceland). While the actor who plays Norman Bates, Freddie Highmore, should attract more accolades, there are times that his character’s awkwardness and mental illness feels a bit too ham-handed and overacted, making me think that while the part is well-cast, there is a bit too much “putting it on” that does not feel authentic. Highmore manages to balance innocent, sheltered, overprotected son with increasingly unstable, mentally ill “psycho” quite well – he is fantastic at “creepy” – but nevertheless isn’t really the star of the show.
Without the main cast working well together, though, the show would not be nearly as addictive as it is (and it has been addictive). Once I started the first season of ten episodes two days ago, I could not stop and am already caught up (we’re nearing the end of season three).