Monday, February 17, 2014

A Feast for the Mind: Hannibal on the Small Screen

As some of you loyal long-time readers may recall, some time back I was on a quest to watch all the shows developed by Bryan Fuller, making my way through the charmingly surreal Pushing Daisies, the puzzlingly bizarre Dead Like Me, and the quirkily comic Wonderfalls. Having thought I had exhausted all that Fuller's creative mind had come up with so far, imagine my delight when I discovered that a new show I had heard some buzz about was another of Fuller's creations. Fuller's latest venture is in many ways starkly different from the others, although there are certainly some similarities as well.

But just what is that venture, you ask? It's none other than a television show based on everyone's favorite villain, Hannibal Lecter. The latest Hannibal delves into the mind of the psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer in the years before he is caught. Hannibal begins with Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences unit, seeking help from Will Graham, cop-turned-instructor in profiling at the FBI academy, in catching a serial killer known as the Minnesota Shrike. Graham is highly effective because he doesn't just think through what a killer would do; he reconstructs the events of the murder casting himself in the role of the killer. He so completely identifies with the killer that the lines between him and the killer are beyond blurred - they no longer exist as Graham wholly takes on the identity of the murderer. Concerned for Graham's mental wellbeing, Crawford consults with Graham's friend and FBI psychiatrist Dr. Alana Bloom, who recommends that Will be paired up with her colleague Dr. Hannibal Lecter to keep an eye on Graham's mental health. Thus, Dr. Lecter becomes privy to the inner workings of Will Graham's mind while also learning a great deal of detail about FBI cases involving grizzly murders, usually at the hands of serial killers.

Hannibal is such a multi-layered show that it's hard to know where to begin when discussing it. One of the things I very much enjoy about the show is that it is, as the credits put it, "based on the characters" from author Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, rather than based on his novels themselves, which have already been treated in Hollywood movies. Because of that, Hannibal plays with the characters and plotlines of the story already well known by fans of the novels and/or movies. It does not stray from the characterizations (for instance, Hannibal Lecter is not suddenly a great guy who would never dream of killing and eating other people), but it can play around with the timing of certain events as well as add or take away interactions between Graham and Lecter as needed/desired to make new emotional impacts and plot twists. Creator Bryan Fuller speaks to this in an interview, in which he said: "I felt that there was an opportunity to tell a chapter of [Lecter's] story that hadn't been told before. We've see him incarcerated, we've seen him post-incarceration having escaped, and we saw him as a young man, but we haven't seen him as a practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal. That's the most interesting part of his life and for some reason, it hadn't been the subject of any of the stories. The backstory was the only indication that we got of what he was like when he was out in the world. It just seemed like it was rich, unexplored territory - so it seemed like that was valid. ... As a fan of the books, I wanted to be true to the novels and yet be able to go to new and different places with the characters. But you have to honor the source material, you have to respect it, because… it's great!" Being such an avid fan of the original novels and movies, Fuller is clearly happy to embrace them but to also do so while adding his own dramatic flair. And while the show is in some ways trying to find a place in the canon (several interviews with cast and crew have indicated that the events in the show are occurring four or five years before Red Dragon), it is not a period piece. Fuller made the bold choice not to have this set in the late 1970s, which would be the correct time period for these events if they are occurring just before the events of Red Dragon, but has it set instead in the present day. Thus, all the conveniences of modern-day life - including and perhaps most importantly, all the fancy equipment in today's crime labs - are seen throughout the show.

This means that Hannibal's fresh new insights allow for uninitiated audiences to the Lecter cannon to be able to watch the show without feeling lost. If you've never read or seen The Silence of the Lambs, you can still watch this show from the beginning without missing any major plot points. What's especially fun (if anything about this incredibly dark show can be called fun) about that is there was almost an air of mystery to the first few episodes of the show. Viewers in the know are aware that Lecter is a cannibal, that he is the Chesapeake Ripper, and other such facts, but these points are only very vaguely hinted at in the show's introduction. It's only later that Hannibal's crimes begin to be revealed without a doubt. But before then, all bets are on. For instance, when the Minnesota Shrike was introduced in the pilot episode and Graham is the first one to deduce that he is eating his victims, my gut reaction was that this serial killer would turn out to be Dr. Lecter. I was of course wrong, although the show did allude to a connection between the actual killer and Lecter - a connection that continues to remain a bit of mystery as the show approaches its second season.

Another thing the show does very well is open a Pandora's box of mystery and mayhem with plotlines that hold significance beyond a single episode, unlike the typical cop procedural show in which each murder(s) grips the viewer for one episode only and then disappears. There is some of the latter in Hannibal, and I found it unfortunate that the larger (and certainly more important) stories sometimes crowded out the full fleshing out of other storylines. But let me step back and try to explain my meaning here a little better. As I mentioned, the first episode introduced a serial killer known as the Minnesota Shrike, who had purportedly kidnapped and murdered eight college girls in his state, although their bodies were never found. Graham's insights caught the murderer, but not before he killed his own wife and attempted to kill his daughter Abigail (who just happens to bear a remarkable resemblance to the missing girls) and not before his crimes inspire a copycat killer. In a typical procedural show, that would be the end of the story. But here, this story continues on. Both Graham and Lecter take on the role of guardian to the newly orphaned Abigail, although they each have their own motives for doing so, and she shows up several more times throughout season one. Throughout the rest of the thirteen episodes of season one, Graham is haunted by visions of a giant elk, which symbolizes the Minnesota Shrike and the disturbing antler room where he mounted his victims. The copycat killer, who we deduce almost immediately is Dr. Lecter, remains at large and thus is someone whose existence is constantly lurking in the back of Graham's and Crawford's minds. The other major ongoing plotline is the search for the Chesapeake Ripper, a serial killer who has eluded Crawford in the past and left a heavy emotional impact on him as a result of his actions. Now that Graham is on the case, there's perhaps hope of finding him at last ... but, of course, we know the Chesapeake Ripper is Dr. Lecter, and even Graham cannot imagine (at least not at this point in his life) that his confidante is the evil person for whom he is seeking. Thus, the Chesapeake Ripper is a recurrent concern for all the major characters.

Still, like I said, there are some serial killers introduced that I feel get the short treatment. For instance, the second episode introduces a pharmacist who is putting diabetic people into comas so that he can bury them alive and use them as a plant food for his mushroom garden. When he learns that Graham can get inside his mindset, he decides to do Graham a "favor" by kidnapping the then-comatose Abigail to add to his mushroom garden. When Graham stops him before he gets out of the hospital with Abigail, the pharmacist tells him that Graham is missing out on the opportunity to communicate freely with Abigail via the mushrooms. This serial killer and his very bizarre theories were never fully explained to my satisfaction. What exactly is his obsession with mushrooms? Why does he think they can help people communicate? And most importantly, if he thought Graham needed to communicate with Abigail, who was he himself trying to communicate with via his garden? It certainly didn't seem like the random patients he saw in his practice were the goal audience. This particular storyline dropped away as quickly as it appeared and seemed all along only to be a vehicle to further show off Will's prowess of getting into the serial killer's mind as well as a reminder of his deep connection with Abigail. This is only one example; there were other serial killers, such as the Angel Maker, who came along and committed horrific crimes that were never mentioned again outside of their set episode.

Speaking of such horrible things, an important disclaimer is that this show is not for the faint of heart. The crimes concocted by the serial killers here and displayed in all their gory detail make shows like Criminal Minds seem like tales for kids. As one of the actors from the show explained in an interview: "Quite frankly, I don't think that there's anything on network TV that can compare with Hannibal and I think that's really exciting. It’s very smart of NBC to be picking up a show that has so much of a cable feel to it. ... If the networks really want to keep audiences, [dark shows are] what they're going to have to cater to in a good way because it's good TV. We need more Breaking Bads, Mad Men, Walking Deads and Homelands on NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX." While I agree with her in general, there were actually times I had to put a hand out to cover up what was shown on the screen because it was just too unsettling. Over time, Graham begins to have nightmares and hallucinations regarding the things he's seen in the field, and I can certainly sympathize. Having watched a bunch of episodes in one day, I found myself that night having a hard time falling asleep with all those creepy images in my head. In Fuller's other shows Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies where, yes, death was a thing - and with murder being the subject in the latter - the victim's bodies weren't gruesome per se. Indeed, on Pushing Daisies, the strange deaths that met these victims often gave a comic look to their corpses, allowing for the dark humor that show excelled at achieving. Here there really is little humor beyond the occasional witty line to lighten the very bleak mood of the show, although I think perhaps that's for the best as it's fitting with the show's mood.

Speaking of mood, the show's plot is enhanced by an appropriate atmosphere that covers every aspect of the show. Each episode of the show is given the French name of a course in a five-star meal, quietly reminding the viewer each week of the cannibalistic nature of one of the show's main characters while also gently evoking the elegant lifestyle he fronts. The music is subtle but always fits any given moment perfectly whether it's a light-hearted piece of classical music for a dinner party or an eerie tone for one of Will's darker moments.  Largely set in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. as well as Minnesota but filmed on location in Ontario, Canada, the backdrop reminds me of the early seasons of The X-Files, which were filmed in Vancouver, Canada. The landscapes are largely rural areas where it's cold, it's rainy, it's snowy, and/or it's grey. These landscapes serve to perfectly capture the bleak outlook of a show about a finely tuned but heartless serial killer matching wits with a mentally unstable but righteous FBI profiler. To quote again from one of the show's actors, she notes that "Hannibal is filmic -- there are a lot of surreal elements in it. It’s very psychologically-based. Hannibal’s tone is so different than anything I’m seeing on network television right now. ... Hannibal is very film-like with high production values and great actors." Indeed, there were a lot of times - especially with Will's crime re-constructions, nightmares, and hallucinations - when I would think to myself that the special effects were visually stunning and most of have cost a boatload to create, both in money and time. But the finished product is worth it, with a result that does indeed feel more cinematic than the usual fare on TV. The fine directing also pushes toward this finished masterpiece; several of the episodes were directed by the excellent David Slade, who also directed the pilot for NBC's one-season cop drama Awake (ah, but what a season!). And the icing on the cake with Hannibal is that the viewer is in a special place of almost omniscience throughout the show. While we don't know every single thing going on here (we are certainly kept in the dark about the characters' past lives and many of Hannibal's actions as well as his motivations), we get to see a lot more than any other single character knows at any given time (with the exception maybe of Hannibal himself, who can probably surmise a lot of what he doesn't physically see himself).

This post is a bit rambling, but I think I've covered a decent amount of the basic plotlines for newbies without giving away too much in terms of spoilers as well as discussed some of the thematic mood. As it's already a lengthy post, I've decided to break this down into a two-part post to spare you a very long read. In the next entry, I'll dig deeper into the character development and acting as those components are a huge part of what makes this show so successful.

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