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Picks and Pans Main: TV

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Bates Motel

A&E, March 18, 10 p.m. ET/PT |


When last we saw crazy Norman Bates’s mother, she was long dead, with a face like a shrieking coconut: Her son and murderer, as the ending of the 1960 thriller Psycho suggested, hadn’t done his best work preserving her corpse. Bates Motel, a half-baked attempt at a prequel to this matricidal fun house, presents us with the widowed Mrs. Bates in her prime: As played by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), she’s a wily, seductive sociopath who teaches her twerpy boy (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s Freddie Highmore) a thing or two about carrying out a killing. I expected Farmiga to do something grandly evil, in the manner of American Horror Story‘s Jessica Lange, but her approach is actually subtle and, to the extent that the plot allows, believable. The malice in her runs deep, surfacing in her eyes as an unhealthy glint.

Otherwise, though, the show is overworked and overthought: Why is it set in the modern day? Why does Norman have a no-good half brother (Max Thieriot)? And Highmore, at least in the first episodes, is miscast. There’s no hint of Anthony Perkins’s fine-grained, psychotic allure from the film: Highmore seems less like a young Norman—or Dexter—than a panicked lollipop.

Top of the Lake

Sundance, March 18, 9 p.m. ET/PT |


This haunting New Zealand miniseries boasts a strong, tense performance from Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as a detective, but it’s very much the work of director Jane Campion (The Piano). What matters isn’t so much the mystery—a 12-year-old pregnant girl goes missing—as Campion’s vision of a masculine, primally brutal society. The girl comes from a sprawling, terrifying family of male criminals. Meanwhile a colony of troubled, battered women has formed under the protection of Holly Hunter (hidden under a wig that makes her look like a thimble-size Patti Smith). If Lake gives off a chilly remoteness, that’s because the actual feelings here are too frightening to unleash.