Prolific writer-producer Carlton Cuse is doing his part to fuel the television industry’s count of 450-plus scripted series with three shows airing in 2017: A&E’s Psycho prequel Bates Motel, FX’s horror series The Strain and USA’s sci-fi thriller Colony. With Bates Motel launching its fifth and final season on Feb. 20 (and adding Rihanna to the cast), Cuse — who also helmed the 2004-10 hit ABC series Lost — spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about ending the Emmy-nominated psychological thriller on his terms. In a wide-ranging interview he also opined about “peak TV,” as well as the nuances of developing content for traditional television networks and streaming services.
MCN: As Bates Motel heads into its fifth and final season, are you satisfied that you’ve done everything you wanted to do with the series back when you first envisioned the concept?
Carlton Cuse: Yes, absolutely. I mean it’s one of those rare occasions where [series co-creator] Kerry Ehrin and I were fully able to realize our dreams and ambitions for the show. When we first got together, we imagined the show being a five-year, 50-episode run, and we had an architecture for each of those seasons. We’ve been able to do it just as we had hoped and planned, which has been incredibly gratifying.
MCN: Over the course of the five seasons, did you have to veer away from your original storyline because of how audiences reacted to the series?
CC: It was always our idea that Norma [played by Vera Famiglia] would die at the end of season four and season five would be our version of Norman Bates [played by Freddie Highmore] as you would have seen him in the feature film, but of course our story is completely different. We wanted to do the final season with the character and his dead mother with him in a real dislocated state of reality. Your question is really an astute one, because most times when you make a TV show and if you’re doing your job right, you listen to the organic entity and it often takes you in directions that are unexpected. I mean, that was very much the case for me on Lost and has been the case on most shows I’ve worked on. However, with this show, while there have been surprises that we didn’t necessarily anticipate, the general architecture and course of things was as we planned.
MCN: As season five gets more closely aligned with the original movie, Janet Leigh’s iconic character of Marion Crane is introduced. How did you decide to have Rihanna play that role?
CC: I had read an interview with her in a magazine where she said that Bates Motel was one of her favorite shows, so this sort of light bulb in my brain went off and I was like, “Oh, maybe we could get Rihanna to play Marion Crane.” It would solve the fundamental problem that we had which was how do we find someone to do that part who isn’t just a pale imitation of Janet Leigh in the original Psycho film. Clearly, by capturing Rihanna, we went in a very different direction. It was super exciting to actually get her; this is her first ever appearance on a scripted television show.
MCN: Through Bates Motel, do you think you’ve been able to effectively introduce Psycho to a new generation of viewers?
CC: It’s sort of funny, because I think that when we started the show it became apparent at least anecdotally that people over 25 [years old] had seen the original movie and a lot of people under 25 never had. We really make the show so that it doesn’t require you to have seen Psycho, and if you have seen the movie, it’s hopefully a bit of a richer experience. We borrowed some things from the [Alfred] Hitchcock movie, but the actual fundamental construct of our story is brand new and original. What’s interesting is that it’s not a retread — you’re not going to watch our show and feel like you’re just seeing something you’ve already seen.
MCN: Along with Bates Motel you’re also producing several other shows. Is this a great environment for producers such as yourself to create content, given that there’s so many different opportunities to get that content distributed on both traditional and digital platforms?
CC: It’s a little bit of a two-edged sword. Certainly there are tremendous opportunities, and I think what’s really great about this environment is that there’s room for shows that are pretty niche-type shows. The criteria used to be when I started television that you had to try to make a show that was everybody’s favorite show. Now the goal is to make your show somebody’s favorite show, so you can do smaller stories that would never have made it into a broadcast-television landscape. On the other hand, with 450 shows out there, it’s really hard to be heard, and you know there are very few, a handful, of shows that people follow and that have cracked the zeitgeist. Unfortunately, there are also a bunch of really good shows that no one ever really connects with, and that’s frustrating.
MCN: Having said that, do you think Lost would have survived in this environment?
CC: I would like to think so. Lost was a great moment of alchemy, and you know we just had this incredible group of people working all together on that show. It was special, and I would like to think that it would it would still be special even in a 450 show universe.
MCN: FX’s The Strain, which you also produce, is ending its run this year, too. Is it more important for you to end shows creatively on your terms, even if it’s still popular with viewers?
CC: Yes. Those shows are sort of ending by design this year, which I think is also an important part of the television world. In an era where people stream shows, I’m very concerned about making sure the shows end well. It used to be that shows would just sort of die an unnatural death — it would be like the Pony Express, where you would ride the horse until it dropped dead beneath you — and shows that were great eventually just faded away into obscurity. But I think in the environment we live in now, where people binge-watch shows, you want to feel like you’re heading down a road that’s leading you someplace, to a conclusion that’s satisfying. And I think that as a show creator you have to know when enough is enough.
MCN: You are also working on Amazon’s Jack Ryan, which is due next year. Going forward, do you see yourself continuing to develop content for traditional TV or, as with Jack Ryan, creating content for digital streaming services?
CC: I think that every idea has its right place and there are certain things that I’m working on that feel like they might be better for network and other things feel like they’re really great for streaming services. I think each show has its own life in its own place, and I think as it now stands there’s room in this television environment for all kinds of different shows ranging from closed-end and traditional procedurals on CBS to really avantgarde shows on streaming platforms. Right now, I’ve got four things I’m working on so my hands are full, but with Bates and The Strain ending I’m I am excited to see what’s next. I’m kind of a story junkie who loves telling stories, so I have some other some other stuff that I would love to bring to the screen. Once these two shows are finished, I’m hoping to have time to turn my attention to some new projects.