The Light from the TV Shows: The Prequelization Principle

You know you’re a real fan of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, if your first reaction to hearing about A&E’s new series, “Bates Motel,” which premieres on March 18, was to grumble, “They’ve already done a TV show called ‘Bates Motel.'”


True enough: in 1987, NBC aired a TV movie called “Bates Motel,” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, a fellow with a few mental troubles who shared some quality time with Norman Bates in the state insane asylum and, as a result, finds himself the beneficiary of the Bates Motel in Norman’s will. The intent was to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for a weekly anthology series of sorts, following the lives of individuals passing through as guests of the motel, but when ratings for the movie proved disappointing, the plan for the series was abandoned.

But A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise. Instead, it’s a prequel, revealing how Norman Bates became the kind of guy who’d grow obsessed with his mother that he’d take on her identity on occasion and kill anyone who looked at him sideways.

Oh, wait, you say that’s already been done, too?

Yep, it sure has: in 1990, Showtime produced “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which pointedly ignored the aforementioned TV movie and showed a very-much-still-alive Norman (Anthony Perkins) calling into a radio talk show about – what are the odds? – matricide, using the conversation as a framing device to flash back to his youth and reveal the bond between Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) and her son (played by Henry Thomas). It doesn’t exactly hew 100% to the continuity established by the preceding three films, but as a standalone film for casual fins, it holds up relatively well, thanks in no small part to Perkins’ performance.

Actually, A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise, either. Not really, anyway. I mean, yes, it starts at approximately the same point in Norman’s life, and the general idea is the same, in that it’s looking into all the Oedipal-ness of the Norma/Norman relationship. This time, though, it isn’t a period piece. For better or worse, it takes place in present day, which means that it’s arguably not a prequel at all but, instead, more of a complete reboot of the franchise.

Don’t worry, though: the Bates Motel itself still looks just as decrepit and foreboding as ever.

But, of course, “Bates Motel” is far from the first occasion of an existing property has been turned into a prequel for TV. Heck, it’s not even the first time it’s happened in 2013!

Muppet Babies (CBS, 1984-1990): Although baby versions of the Muppets first appeared in a scene in “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” the film only appeared in theaters a few months before “Muppet Babies” joined the CBS Saturday morning line-up, so it’s clear that the powers knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that kids wouldn’t be able to resist the li’l darlings. As it turned out, though, the writing on “Muppet Babies” and the incorporation of its characters’ imaginations and their resulting fantasies made it one of the most enjoyable Saturday morning series in many moons. It’s just a shame that we’re likely never to see a complete-series set of the show, as the funds it would require to secure the rights to include the episodes featuring clips from other TV series and films would be decidedly cost-prohibitive. Sigh…

Star Wars: Droids (ABC, 1985-1986)
Star Wars: Ewoks (ABC, 1985-1986)

Unlike “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which was always designed to serve as a bridge between the goings on in the second and third chapters in the “Star Wars” saga, no one knew in 1985 if George Lucas would ever deign to fill in the blanks he’d established for a possible prequel trilogy. As such, younger “Star Wars” fans lost their minds when they learned of “Droids,” which was intended to loosely establish what R2D2 and C3P0 had been doing in the years immediately prior to “Star Wars IV: A New Hope.” Decidedly fewer viewers cared what the Ewoks had been doing prior to “Return of the Jedi,” but we got the answer to that, too.

The Flintstone Kids (ABC, 1986-1988)
A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (ABC, 1988-1991)

Not that animated series are required by law to follow their established chronologies, but there’s something really obnoxious about the way Hanna-Barbera decided to cheapen the legacy of two of its most iconic series by saying, “Hey, let’s make ’em little kids and wring a few more bucks out of the franchise!” In fairness, we never really knew how Scooby and the gang got together, so “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” might well be considered part of the canon, but in the Season 4 “Flintstones” episode, “Bachelor Days,” we got the back story on the first meeting of Fred and Barney and Wilma and Betty, and it definitely didn’t take place when they were wee.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (ABC, 1992-1996)

For my part, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive the way this series, when it was released on DVD, opted to trash all of the book-ending sequences featuring George Hall as an elderly Indiana Jones, presumably because Harrison Ford was getting a little too close to that age by that point. Still, this was a fun series which helped fill in some gaps in Dr. Jones’ history while also helping younger viewers learn history.


The Little Mermaid (CBS, 1992-1994)
Jungle Cubs (ABC, 1996-1996)
Hercules (Syndication, 1998-1999)

Disney may have done to the characters from “The Jungle Book” basically the same thing that Hanna-Barbera did with “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo,” but darned if they didn’t do it in such a beautifully animated fashion that you tend to be more forgiving of their efforts. “The Little Mermaid” and “Hercules,” however, were slightly less egregious in their flashbacks, with the latter actually turning out to be an extremely funny series filled with tons of great guest voices.

Ponderosa (PAX-TV, 2001-2002)

You don’t have to be all that well-versed in TV history to know that the turn of the millennium was not exactly what you’d call the glory days of the western genre, but given that PAX-TV was trying to cater to an older, gentler demographic, it’s understandable why they’d decide that it might be a reasonable plan of action to try and revisit the lives of the Cartwright family and reveal what was going on in the years prior to those portrayed in “Bonanza.” Unfortunately, series with gentler tones don’t tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves, especially when they’re on a relatively small cable network.

Star Trek: Enterprise (UPN, 2001-2005)

The idea of doing a series about the earliest days of the United Federation of Planets was a reasonable one, given the amount of history which had been established in various other “Star Trek” series over the course of the preceding decades. Unfortunately, “Enterprise” spent so much more time trying to create its own new history that by the time the creators realized that they’d made a tactical error, the writing was already on the wall for the series’ fate. It’s a shame, really, as the last series was easily the best season of the bunch.

Clifford’s Puppy Days (PBS Kids, 2003-2004)

We all know that Emily Elizabeth’s love made Clifford grow so big that her family had to leave their home and relocate to Birdwell Island. What we never knew, however, was what life was like for this little girl in the early days of her relationship with her then-little red dog. This was possibly not need-to-know information, as “Clifford’s Puppy Days” only lasted for a single season.

Caprica (SyFy, 2010)

For those “Battlestar Galactica” fans who wanted all the deets on how the Cylons first came to be created, Ronald D. Moore came up with “Caprica,” starring Eric Stoltz as Daniel Graystone, the man who used his daughter Zoe as the model for the very first Cylon. Although critics embraced the series for the most part, viewer became increasingly less enthused, resulting in only a single-season run for the show.

The Carrie Diaries (The CW, 2013)

Since the odds of seeing another “Sex and the City” movie seem to be shrinking with each passing day, it’s not entirely unreasonable for The CW to decide to move forward on a series based on Candace Bushnell’s story of Carrie Bradshaw’s life circa 1984. Surprisingly, the series is a great deal of fun, offering an inevitably awesome soundtrack while providing a sweet, nostalgic look back at day-glo days gone by while offering a bit of new insight into the character of Carrie that was established on the HBO series.