Ready for a "Psycho" prequel? The new series "Bates Motel" (10 p.m., A&E, TV-14) aims to explain the devolution of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) from teenager to serial killer. As in most psychological queries, we begin with the mother.
In a grim opening scene, we discover reasons why Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) took Norman and left her husband in a hurry, settling in a picturesque California coastal town to start life afresh as the owner/operator of a retro motel. As she was in "Up in the Air," Farmiga is an intriguing presence. Here, she's a young and beautiful mother, way too chummy with her growing boy. She also projects a creepy blankness that can quickly turn to rage.
Highmore does a good job
"Bates" is an ambitious, cinematic attempt at a TV thriller that suffers from a maddening inconsistency in tone. At first, it seems to be set in 1960, or at least lost in time. But once Norman's teen contemporaries arrive with their smartphones and earbuds, you halfway think "Bates" has been kidnapped by a CW show. Then, it's back to the Bates mansion, where a gruesome rape and murder scene takes us in another direction entirely.
Farmiga's role borders on the impossible. Is she terrifying, or merely over the top? Throw a layer of gratuitous violence over that confusion, and you've got something more discomforting than entertaining.
---For a far more original effort, don't miss the seven-part miniseries "Top of the Lake" (9 p.m., Sundance, TV-14).
"Lake" stars Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men") as a troubled detective out to find a missing, suicidal 12-year-old girl, who happens to be five months pregnant. The girl is the daughter of violent drug lord Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), who presides over a cultlike family from a ramshackle compound.
They live in a bucolic spot aptly named Paradise. Mitcham gets even more violent when it appears that a local realtor has sold a parcel of his hideaway to a mystical guru, GJ (Holly Hunter), who uses it to create a healing retreat for wounded women.
The cultural collision of angry alpha-dog males and GJ's new-age feminist troupe is unforgettable.
Like many efforts from writer and director Jane Campion, "Lake" is slow to build but more than pays off. Filmed in New Zealand, the series' gorgeous and haunting scenery shows human darkness wallowing in the full light of day.
---"The Biggest Loser" (8 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) is
---Doomsday preppers are murder suspects on "Bones" (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
---"Dancing With the Stars" (8 p.m., ABC, TV-PG) begins its 16th season.
---Amy buys her wedding dress at a thrift store on "Secret Life of the Ameri can Teenager" (8 p.m., ABC Family, TV-14).
---Keira must stop a bombing on the season finale of "Continuum" (8 p.m., Syfy, TV-14).
---Carroll wants to see his wife on "The Following" (9 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
---Formerly comfortable families face poverty in the 2013 documentary "Ameri can Winter" (9 p.m., HBO).
---J.R.'s will affects everyone on "Dallas" (9 p.m., TNT, TV-14).
---Dog the Bounty Hunter appears on "Hawaii Five-0" (10 p.m., CBS, TV-PG).
---Vivian's killer is re-
vealed on the season finale of "Deception" (10 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
---Frightened to death on "Castle" (10 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
---Fear for an infant on "Monday Mornings" (10 p.m., TNT, TV-14).
Marlon Brando, John Gielgud and James Mason star in the 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" (5:15 a.m., TCM).
---Bachelor pad blues on "How I Met Your Mother" (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
---Carrie ignores her
birthday on "The Carrie Diaries" (8 p.m., CW, TV-14).
---No reservations on "Rules of Engagement" (8:30 p.m., CBS, TV-PG).
---Temp jobs on "2 Broke Girls" (9 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
---Suds and shamrocks on "Mike & Molly" (9:30 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
---Sandra Day O'Connor is scheduled on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (11 p.m., Comedy Central, r).
---Javier Bardem, Lauren Cohan and Brandi Carlile appear on "Conan" (11 p.m., TBS, r).
---John Caparulo, Michael Yo and Josh Wolf are booked on "Chelsea Lately" (11 p.m., E!).
---Emily Bazelon sits down on "The Colbert Report" (11:30 p.m., Comedy Central, r).
---Selena Gomez, Bob Sarlatte and Killer Mike appear on "Late Show With David Letterman" (11:35 p.m., CBS).
---Jay Leno welcomes Morgan Freeman, Rulon Gardner, Henry Cejudo and James Hunter on "The To night Show" (11:35 p.m., NBC).
---Jennifer Love Hewitt and Steven Yeun appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (11:35 p.m., ABC).
---Nicolas Cage, Mike Birbiglia and Kip Moore visit "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" (12:35 a.m., NBC).
---Craig Ferguson hosts Seth Green on "The Late Late Show" (12:35 a.m., CBS).
Kevin McDonough can be reached at kevin.tvguy@g mail.com.