A nefarious drug ring lurks in a quaint, strange Pacific Northwestern town, ruining the life of a troubled popular girl and inviting intrigue from an unconventionally attractive guy and his quirky brunette sidekick. Also someone does not know he’s committing murders, and a parental relationship crosses into inappropriate territory.
Don’t pull out the coffee and pie just yet because this isn’t Twin Peaks. The above also describes A&E’s Bates Motel, the “ripoff-remake-prequel” to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1961 thriller Psycho. Bates ended its terrifically messed up second season this week, and has already been renewed for a third. In this TV incarnation, serial killer Norman Bates is a moody high schooler and his mother, Norma, is not yet a basement skeleton: she runs the motel.
So is Bates Motel “the new Twin Peaks?” To declare anything in entertainment to be “the new anything” is silly these days, especially when through instant streaming, it’s possible to experience pop culture anew at literally any time.
And to say a show is the new “Twin Peaks” is especially blasphemous because fans of Mark Frost’s and David Lynch’s 1990-91 TV mystery, like myself, are obsessive. They collect set pieces, chronicle every backwards spoken catchphrase, and dissect glimpses of the insidious BOB. My friend Charlie owns a clock that may have been on the show’s set. Another friend has a Peaks-inspired tattoo. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Silverlake, Calif. and the table of strangers beside me is coincidentally talking about going to a midnight screening of theTwin Peaks movie “Firewalk With Me” and dressing in character for it. That’s how hip the show remains despite going off the air after just two seasons.
People who work in TV know Peaks’ cult status exists. The creators and producers of Bates, namely Carlton Cuse of LOST fame (wait, come back!), have admitted to essentially ripping off Peaks to get the vibe for their show. During a panel discussion at the Paley Center in May, Cuse admitted as much: “If you wanted to get that confession, the answer is yes. I loved [Peaks]. They only did 30 episodes. Kerry [Ehrin, co-producer] and I thought we’d do the 70 that are missing.”
Twin Peaks takes place in a sleepy, wooded town full of murder and secrets in the Pacific Northwest, where the small town sheriffs bungle creepy investigations and 1950s-styled high school students hide a prostitution and drug ring that took the life of troubled, popular blonde Laura Palmer.
In Bates, that town is called White Pine Bay, and it’s essentially the same setting. The titular motel’s taxidermy and pine decor is similar to that of Twin Peaks’ Great Northern Hotel, owned by another parent-child pair: Benjamin and Audrey Horne. Both shows make use of wide exterior shots of mountains, and a brown, beige, rust, and green color scheme; There’s also the vague sense that everything is covered in sawdust, the cardigans and curls and the “Daddy-o” cool.
But you can’t resurrect the dead, much as Peaks’ Laura Palmer might suggest otherwise. Twin Peaks success was ephemerally 90s, and hinged for many viewers on the mystery of Palmer’s murder. Even the 1992 film version failed to stir the devotion of the series and divides fans to this day. There can’t be Twin Peaks again, and there won’t be. On Twitter, Frost called “leaked” casting calls for a new Peaks promo “baseless rumors.”
So according to my fandom, I’m about to blaspheme; Forgive me, Man From Another Place! For me, Cuse is right. Bates Motel is the newTwin Peaks.
Bates is campy (A mother-son singalong to Mr. Sandman) and dark (while a murdering teen girl hides in the basement). It combines cringe-y, “Oh no, don’t go in there, don’t turn on the light, oh god” suspense with bizarre, precocious, almost spontaneous comedy. In the midst of cold-blooded murder, rape, and incest, there’s Emma accidentally ingesting a marijuana muffin, or Norma berating the town council with a rant about “axe murderers and whores.”
For direct comparison, let’s say that Norman Bates is the show’s special agent Dale Cooper: Fresh-faced, plucky, and tortured by a dark past. Cooper is the outsider that brings us in to Peaks, and the pilot episode of Bates has Norman moving to White Pine Bay. Norman flies into blackouts and murders people. Perhaps he’s possessed, much like Cooper’s ultimate fate (SPOILER). For much of both shows, it’s unclear what is reality and what is in Norman’s or Dale’s minds. (Is there a Black Lodge or is Cooper dreaming? Did Norman kill Ms. Watson or did someone else get there after he fled?)
Brunette Emma DeCody is Bates’ Audrey Horne, a sexually frustrated and wise-beyond-her-years youth with designs on our hero. Unfortunately, both Norman and Dale are too dopey and “moral” to take advantage of the sweet tang on a silver platter, so they’re just friends. And like Donna Haywood, the show’s other brunette leading lady, Emma is a bit goofy and young and nervous, but thankfully not as boring.
Blonde popular girl Bradley Martin is Laura Palmer. In Bates, Bradley is still alive but everyone thinks she’s dead because she took off for Boston after murdering the man who murdered her father. Like Laura, she’s real caught up in problems with her dad, and isn’t seen in the actual plot for at least the second season. (No incest implied yet, but who knows with this show?) Bradley’s actions and “death” set off massive changes in the town’s not-so-secret drug industry, much like Laura’s is the catalyst for the entire plot of Twin Peaks.
The town of White Pine Bay running on an illegal weed dealing factory is the same as Twin Peaks running on cocaine distribution. The prostitution ring at One-Eyed Jacks is the Asian girls kept in officer Zach Shelby’s basement. Dylan Masset is everyone’ least favorite brooding motorcyclist James.
In fact, this season, Bates actually used a plot directly taken from Peaks: Norma is going to stop the development of the new highway by pretending to care about an endangered species. In Peaks, Benjamin Horne is able to stop Catherine’s new development with a phony “save the pine weasel” campaign.
And plot and character similarities be damned, Bates Motel just feels like Twin Peaks. It’s shot similarly, it’s not taking itself too seriously, while still bringing the scares, the violence, and the delightful absurdity.
And like Twin Peaks, Bates Motel has got a little devoted fan base brewing. It made it to season two, and was just renewed for a third season. Cuse and crew may yet get to finish those last 70 “Twin Peaks” episodes.