‘Hannibal’: The Most Successful Prequel Series Thus Far?
This year has morphed into the return of the horror series. First, we got The Following. And then Bates Motel. Now, NBC is in the ring with Hannibal, and it is by far the best of the bunch. Whether the show will suffer from its third place appearance is yet to be seen, but it is something I fear nonetheless. It might be cliché to say the market is over-saturated, but it’s true.
And yet, Hannibal is markedly different from The Following and Bates Motel. Unlike The Following, Hannibal isn’t trying too hard. The Following‘s first mandate seems to be “pushing the limits of network television” by clearly staying in lines of recognizable boundaries. What looks to be pushing the boundary always appears to be written in as a requirement, not as a means of servicing story or character. (Like, “Gee, we have the episode structure ready to go. But where’s the violence? Oh, let’s have a woman graphically strangled to conclude this scene…She’ll be killed off soon, the implications will never need exploring”.)
Bates Motel is similar to Hannibal in that they are both working from source material, from pop culture sources so prevalent that its main villains are sown into the tapestry of our collective entertainment discourse. Both are prequels set in modern day, in part to be more accessible and in part to put distance between our preconceived notions of these characters. The difference arises in presentation. The writers for Bates Motel “get” its source material but they crave the audience’s recognition of the fact they understand the material. Cue anvil-clanging sentences and Easter eggs alluding to a past story (which technically doesn’t exist in the show’s setting). Does Hannibal also rely on cheesy phrases that the audience can only truly understand knowing their forward-looking implications? Yes. But…
Hannibal succeeds where others fail for a number of reasons. For one, the mood. A Bryan Fuller series is guaranteed to pop with color and imagery, and when applied to a graphic horror series, his vision astounds when it comes to displaying blood and gore. Hannibal challenges network television in a way that The Following has not; I have never questioned The Following airing on Fox, but I am still marveling over the fact Hannibal aired on NBC. The imagery is the primary driver of the mood: oppressive, suffocating and alien. It seems to exist in a parallel universe. It leaves an uneasy feeling that clings to your bones, makes you feel dirty, and yet the invitation into the world is too much to pass up; you have to journey back there and analyze its bizarre inner workings.
Where Hannibal really excels is in Bryan Fuller’s (and company’s) command of the source material that doesn’t implore the audience to recognize the hints and clues. You can if you so desire, they’re there. Full disclosure: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is one of my favorite books. The imagery in the book has left an indelible imprint on my memory, parts which make me shiver still when I contemplate them. Extra, balancing disclosure: I love Kevin Bacon (so I’m still watching The Following) and I will watch Vera Farmiga in anything (thus, still watching Bates Motel).
Back to my weird obsession with Red Dragon: Fuller, in my mind, really understands Will Graham as a character, and correctly explores ways he can be further developed. When I talk about the images that stay with me from the book, they are primarily from sections that involve Graham re-creating murders in his mind. Hannibal capitalizes on this in the pilot, and Bryan Fuller envisions a new way to experience this phenomena, not already tread on in the film versions. That Graham has “pure empathy” and can connect to anyone mentally, is discussed with more clinical terminology than the book iteration of Graham. Sure, it also makes Graham have a diagnosable mental disorder (closer to autistic than sociopath as the show puts it) where one was never really implied previously, but it’s not unfathomable. My narrative professor would argue that empathy doesn’t exist and therefore Graham’s imagination should raise red flags, and I’m not entirely sure that the show won’t explore a similar vein of thought down the road.
The other great thing about the show is the uncertainty, at least to my knowledge, of the end game (contingent on a renewal). Might the series end with Graham discovering Lecter’s murderous alter ego and Lecter’s subsequent attack on Graham? Or will the series move past that and into the early days of Lecter’s imprisonment? The pilot uses an actual case from Graham’s back story, so what will other episodes entail? And unlike, The Following (which can be taken at face value) and arguably Bates Motel (we’ll see), Hannibal offers a complex narrative. I benefited from watching the pilot twice; intentionally so, the story attempts to confuse you on whether Lecter is behind the abductions and murders. On a second viewing, timelines and motivations became clearer and I enjoyed the episode even more than the first time. It is easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and staging, which can make concrete information hard to keep track of, but that further contributes to the surreal oppressive mood.
Recommendations: Try it out. Watch it twice. Marvel in HD horror geek wonder at how Bryan Fuller recreated the bathroom from The Shining. And definitely explore the source material (the Red Dragon novel in particular). I have high hopes NBC will air all thirteen episodes at the least. Also, Gillian Anderson and Eddie Izzard show up eventually. It’s gonna be fun.