Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why YOU Should Be Watching Hannibal

Like many snobby, pretentious, lazy people, I tend to only watch premium cable (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, Orange is The New Black, and so on.)  I tend to avoid the networks, especially if the network show in general is a spinoff or remake. However, recently my friend, collaborator and teaching assistant, Levin, has been telling me that I need to watch Hannibal. I was dubious, but then he wrote this guest blog for Genre Hacks, and he has convinced me to give it a look. Here's his spiel...

by Levin Menekse

I'm talking about the the TV Show by the way, not the movie. Yes, the one on NBC. I know, it's weird, but the fact is Hannibal (TV show) is the best thing that happened to Hannibal Lecter since Silence of the Lambs.

Don't take my word for it, go consult your favorite TV critic. Or, actually, you know what, I'm going to go to Metacritic and share with you the NEGATIVE reviews of the show. How is that for a change?

Linda Stasi from New York post writes in her review: "Dancy is a perfect, tortured soul; Fishburne is everyman with a brain; and Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly named. What is lacking, though, is any respite from the darkness."

Or let's check out this review from RedEye's Curt Wagner: "In seriously exploring what drives people to kill, Hannibal serves up a meal too heavy to enjoy each week."

Do you see a trend? Even those who don't like the show have no problem with the show's quality, they merely think it's "too dark". Which, it is. Proudly. And not in a whishy-washy way that most criminal shows/serial killer dramas are these days. It doesn't cuddle you at the end of every episode and show you how safe you should feel because, yes, there might be predators out there but, don't worry, the CSI Team will always catch them, dear audience! Every week, over and over again. And it sure as hell doesn't sugar-coat its "bad" characters to be more friendly to the audience -- COUGH DEXTER COUGH.

I'll tell you when I realized how much I loved Hannibal... I always watch TV shows when I'm eating lunch/dinner. I have watched TV shows that many would find disturbing or grotesque -- Fringe, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Walking Dead, Oz... to list a few -- but none of them ever fazed me. I'm a curious child of the internet dear reader, and through risky clicks or just morbid fascination, I have seen things, real things, so my tolerance for any kind of violence is inhumanly high.

But I couldn't eat while I was watching Hannibal. And it wasn't the graphic violence -- which there is a whole lot of, Hannibal disturbed me on a psychological level. I didn't feel squeamish, I felt horrified -- psychologically invaded, to be precise. See, one of the great things the show does differently from the rest of the serial-killer shows on TV is that it doesn't fetishize killers. It doesn't merely point them out and brand them as an "other", some psychopath we should be afraid of. No, what Hannibal does is much more tricky. It strives to make you understand these killers. It's intimate. Instead of watching these killers from afar, we are with them. We don't merely stare at the TV, being entertained, we are gazing at a mirror that reveals us the abyss of human nature.

Now, before I continue, I shall assume you will fall under either of these two categories if you haven't seen Hannibal yet. You are either A) A person who loves good television but can't stand the serial-killer genre and, thus, haven't given Hannibal a chance or B) A person who is really into dark, crime shows but you haven't caught with Hannibal because there is simply too many shows like it out there.

Come here, dear reader, if you fall into Category A. If you are in Category B, feel free to skip ahead.

You know what I don't like? Westerns. But Deadwood was different and awesome. I don't like mob movies that much either but Sopranos was pretty, pretty good. And I feel like I'm immune to cop shows after watching so many Law and Order episodes -- I mean, seriously, what is a new thing you can say about the justice system and police work that Law and Order and it's one gazillion episodes haven't said?

But then, The Wire is the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I realize I just pulled The Wire card. Why? Because Hannibal is to, say, Criminal Minds what The Wire is to Law and Order. The Wire used the simplistic framework of cops vs drug-dealers (in its first season) to inquire about larger things such as the bureaucracy of the government institutions and the futility of War on Drugs. Similarly, Hannibal uses the framework of serial killers to inquire about the transient nature of life and the man's desperate search for meaning.

For example, Will Graham, our protagonist, has an enormous capacity when it comes to empathy -- even with Serial Killers and that's why he's uniquely capable of catching them. After a while, we see that he's being profoundly disturbed when he shoots a killer and realizes that heenjoyed it. Will's burden is something the series takes very seriously and something that creates a lot of friction between him and his boss, Jack Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne. But more than that, the show does something unexpected -- it contrasts his burden with the burden of Bella, Jack Crawford's Wife.

(This is going to be a spoiler, apologies, but it's not that big of a deal, trust me.)

See, Bella is suffering from terminal lung cancer and she wants to handle this burden alone. Bella is played by Gina Torres, Laurence Fisherburne's wife in real life, and their relationship, their push-pull, is portrayed with the gravity and authenticity it requires, something you won't find in any other "serial-killer" drama. Their story in the fifth episode in Season 2 is revelatory in the way that the show doesn't belittle her desire to end her own life and refuses to make her a victim. It's gripping emotional stuff and the scenes between them are usually quiet, moving, elegiac -- the stuff "serious, sophisticated" TV drama's are made of.

Similarly, Hannibal's relationship with Will Graham is a deeply complicated friendship that would rival any such relationship in, say, Mad Men. Remember Anthony Hopkins' bizarre relationship with Clarice in Silence of the Lambs? How he's weirdly protective of her and makes a guy swallow his own tongue
for insulting Clarice? How he's weirdly captivated by her, despite the fact that he's a brutal serial killer? There are shades of that relationship in Will and Hannibal's friendship and it's simply fascinating to watch them together, especially because Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen play those scenes with electric chemistry.

Similarly, the "serial-killers" of the week are rarely "simply psychotic" as they are in many other shows/movies. There is always a philosophy to their work and a bizarre sort of beauty. For example, the first killer of Season 2 was making a human mural in the shape of an eye to communicate with God. His loneliness, his desire to connect with something grander than him was played in an empathetic way, especially as Hannibal Lecter helped him become a part of his own mural.

Lastly, Hannibal does a great job of side-stepping the cliched "procedural beats". Ultimately, yes, there are some of those but Hannibal does such a great job of making those moments count, either through emphasizing the toll it takes on Will to solve such crimes or through poetic/dream-like images. A recent example came in the second episode of the second season when Hannibal figured out that the killer lives near corn fields. How did he figure it out? DNA, you say? Maybe some CSI stuff and a sexy, pulsating montage?

No, Hannibal smelled the evidence and, in his mind, got transported to the middle of corn fields... And then smiled to himself. That's it. Simple, direct, poetic.

Ultimately, why I love Hannibal is because it's one of those "I wonder how would Spike Jonze film an action movie?" or "I wonder how would Christopher Nolan do a romantic comedy?" In this case it's "How would the brains behind Pushing Daisies make a dark, fucked up but whimsical show about serial killers?" and the answer is he does it awesomely.

Now, if you fall under the category B:

Okay, you dig this kind of shit, right? Serial killers, murders, detectives chasing them, it's your jam. Maybe you need a good fix after True Detective... Maybe how the Yellow King stuff ended up being tied up didn't rock your world. Good, good, come over here.

First of all, you've seen people getting killed on TV/Movies. But not like this.

Hannibal has the following: A killer who makes people into human violins by removing their heads and then "plays" their vocal chords. Another killer "merges" people with mushroom fields, keeping them "alive" by inducing a coma. Last week's killer turned human bodies into, wait for it: Bee Hives. It's fascinating, visually brilliant stuff and I have no idea how they come up with this shit.

Let me add some more stuff onto that layer of cake: Hannibal is gloriously tense. See, we know Will is going to figure out Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer but the way the show goes around getting to that is delicious. And, more than that, it's smart. Usually when you have a brilliant detective who is best
friends with a serial killer, shows dumb the supposedly smart detective down to make it make sense. But not in Hannibal. Both characters are ingenious and writers make an awesome job of painting them into corners and getting them out without seeming contrived. This is some Walter White / Hank Schrader shit right here with all the chess moves and the counter chess moves and you're missing it!

And it's entertaining as hell once you get the hang of it. There are tons of black humor and the show becomes a pulpy thriller as well as a grandiose character study. In one episode, Hannibal Lecter invites a serial killer for dinner and the two eat as it's revealed they both know each other is a murderer. Lecter's guest drops his fork, fearing that the food might be poisoned... Hannibal dead-pans: "I didn't poison you. I wouldn't do that to the food." and what happens is...

Not gonna tell you. You might have to watch it to find out.

Seriously though, this is a miracle of a show. It shouldn't be this good, it shouldn't be able to juggle so
many tones while still being playful. Hannibal Lecter portrayed in a Network Television Series should not be able to compare to Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the character. But it totally does. It might even surpass that legendary performance if the show gets renewed for another season. And for that to happen, the show needs viewers.

Here's the simple, short, low-down: This is a low-rated but amazing show that needs viewers. You are
a viewer that needs an amazing show. Give it a chance, watch a few episodes. And you shan't be disappointed, I assure you.

Thank you, 


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