Mondays already suck. The weekend's over, and it's back to another long paycheck-earning grind. As if that's not bleak enough, A&E is here to darken your Mondays even more with Bates Motel and Those Who Kill. But is the unpleasantness worth your time?
A&E wants to be down. Why should HBO, FX, Showtime, and AMC, and now even Netflix, have all the fun?
Because there’s only so many ways you can milk the Storage Wars reality TV franchise, and because those Duck Dynasty rednecks don’t understand the concept of media sensitivity, the reality-heavy cable network pushing forward into the original programming game, and, so far, the results haven’t exactly disrupted the system. A&E’s first show was Longmire, a gritty, rural crime series about a Wyoming sheriff and co-starring Lou Diamond Phillips as a character named Henry Standing Bear. Last year, the network made a bigger dent in the cable world with Bates Motel, the brainchild of former Lost co-creator Carlton Cuse and Friday Night Lights producer Kerry Ehrin. On paper, the premise was risky at best, and idiotic at worst: Psycho nutjob Norman Bates is in high school, living with his slightly off-center but extra loving mother, Norma, next to the roadside motel she’s taken over in a kooky little town straight out of the Twin Peaks handbook. But at least there weren’t any characters named Standing Bear.
Bates Motel’s first season ended with a dead woman’s body lying in a pool of her blood, promising that the show’s next season would delve even further into what makes Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho so disturbing even today: homicide, though in Hitch’s case, artfully and masterfully staged homicide. Tonight, Bates Motel returns with, yes, a murder, but also an attempted suicide and a teenager who’s obsessed with a corpse buried six feet underground. Which sets the tone aptly for Bates Motel’s new Monday night partner, A&E’s third original series, Those Who Kill, a detective program in which, in its pilot episode, women are locked in coffins, gagged, injected with needles, and left to rot in construction sites as decaying cadavers.
Nope, the good times won’t be rolling on A&E for the next ten Monday nights. Nor will, unfortunately, any must-see, appointment-viewing television.
Bates Motel, though, does deserve a chance. The show’s inaugural season never congealed into coherence. Tonally, it volleyed back and forth from funny to creepy to wacky, without ever rooting its world in one mood long enough to establish an identity. Young Norman (Freddie Highmore) battled through a sort of love triangle with the popular girl in school, Bradley (Nicola Peltz) and the cute, introverted Emma (Olivia Cooke), whose cystic fibrosis forces her to lug an oxygen tank with her at all times. Norman’s half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot), started working for a backwoods drug ring with crime family ties. Norman countered against Norman’s becoming a man by getting hot and heavy with a police deputy who kidnapped Asian girls and locked them in his basement. And just to appease the Psycho fans out there, Norman was introduced to taxidermy.
Moving quickly and with more twists than a bag of Auntie Anne’s, Bates Motel was at least entertaining, one of those with-a-pound-of-salt TV shows that’s most enjoyable when not taken all that seriously. A weekly diversion, in other words. But it’d be TV vapor without its two leads, Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. On an uneven, lightweight cable drama, they’re Emmy-worthy performers, navigating through Bates Motel’s scatterbrained universe with multi-faceted command. Farmiga, in particular, is remarkable, seesawing from Norman’s overly coddling, somewhat Mommie Dearest protector to the sexually repressed, borderline unstable widow who can’t seem to find lovers with long shelf-lives. Farmiga’s ability to subtly switch dispositions works nicely with Highmore’s own toggling act—around the women in his life, Norman’s a pussycat, but there’s always a bubbling malevolence in his eyes. He’s never more a few steps away from grabbing a butcher’s knife and putting a shower scene in action.
If only Bates Motel’s creative team would let Farmiga and Highmore be its primary focus. In tonight’s season two premiere, Peltz’s Bradley gets as much screen time as, if not more than, Norman—she’s living in her own version of Revenge, determined to find whomever’s responsible for killing her father, but that’s a storyline we’ve seen before in other shows, like, well, Revenge. Norman trying to figure out why he’s so obsessed with the deceased Ms. Watson, the schoolteacher who may or may not have tried to seduce him before ending up dead? Much more interesting. The episode’s final scene hints that Norman and Bradley’s plots will become one, but that also means Highmore’s dominant acting chops will continue to dwarf Peltz’s passable but rarely powerful dramatic range. She’s no Vera Farmiga, frankly, or even Taissa Farmiga.
To Peltz’s credit, though, she’s definitely got spunk, and the same can’t be said for the usually compelling Chloë Sevigny in Those Who Kill. Indicative of the sluggish show as a whole, she’s a dreary non-entity as Pittsburgh homicide detective Catherine Jepsen. She’s a green gumshoe with serious family issues (her brother disappeared; her dad might be a murderer) who recruits an equally bland forensic psychologist (James D’Arcy) to help her figure out who’s been offing female drug addicts and prostitutes and stashing them in a drainage pipe. Neither Sevigny nor D’Arcy do much to distinguish themselves from the bodies they find—they’re not as acting as much as they’re sleepwalking through Those Who Kill’s premiere episode. It’s Hannibal on Ambien.
Those Who Kill’s pilot was directed by the normally kinetic Joe Carnahan, the no-BS filmmaker (and Those Who Kill executive producer) who made the best post-Taken Liam Neeson movie (The Grey), a better A-Team film than anyone could have expected, and the closest crime cinema has ever gotten to emulating an acid trip (Smokin’ Aces). Here, though, Carnahan’s powerless against Those Who Kill’s garden-variety thriller elements, doing his best to over-stylize things with fluorescent color schemes lifted from ‘70s Italian giallo flicks and a synthy score that’s pure ‘80s John Carpenter. But superficial dressing can’t mask dull storytelling and snoozy performances.
With these shows’ piling up the stiffs, A&E new Monday night programming doesn’t want you to feel good about life. There’s nothing wrong with that—TV’s current darkest hours, True Detective and Hannibal, would promote wrist-slitting if not for their supreme artistry. It’s just that Those Who Kill and, to a lesser degree, Bates Motel don’t let you feel much of anything. Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore are great actors, not miracle workers.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)