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.
You’d think the ensemble cast for Argo could not be challenged, but that would be a mistake. At every location, meeting, and level of government, Zero Dark Thirty is populated by familiar faces. And interestingly, many (not all) of these actors are prominently known for their television roles.
Jessica Chastain: She’s amazing. And while she is starring in basically every film that comes out these days, some people (like me!) might remember her role as Veronica Mars’s disappeared pregnant neighbor in the season one episode “The Girl Next Door.”
Jason Clarke: I associated Jason Clarke with his starring role on the defunct show, The Chicago Code. I championed that show until the bitter end, so I hope Jason Clarke at least gets a big film career as a consolation prize. Bonus!: I remember where I saw him most recently: in Texas Killing Fields being hunted by…Jessica Chastain.
Kyle Chandler: He really wins this year because he is also in Argo. Of course, his prominent television role is Friday Night Lights (I know, I know, I need to watch) but I can’t help but constantly think of his stint on Grey’s Anatomy. Remember how that one time there was a bomb and Kyle Chandler needed to diffuse it?
Jennifer Ehle: I honestly can’t look at her without thinking about her role opposite Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice.
Harold Perrineau: Lost. Oz. Sons of Anarchy. The Unusuals. (And Wedding Band? Sorry, Wedding Band fans — it’s a goner.)
Mark Strong: You might know him from every film ever, but his role in Kick-Ass sticks out to me.
Jessica Collins: One of those, “don’t I know her from something?” The answer must be I know her from Rubicon. Yet another show I watched to the bitter end. It really just served to prove that AMC can and will ax shows.
Fredric Lehne: You may know him from every television show ever: American Horror Story: Asylum, Lost, Supernatural, etc. Seriously, he is the epitome of the character actor.
Mark Duplass: How can you not love him?? He’s making his mark on TV (The League, The Mindy Project) and in film (Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister).
James Gandolfini: Tony Soprano himself!
Stephen Dillane: You may also know him from everything in the world but these days I tend to shout out (mentally) “Stannis!” whenever I see him. So, Game of Thrones but also Hunted, John Adams, etc.
John Barrowman: a.k.a. Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, as well as his recent gig on CW’s Arrow. Singer, actor, host and all-around constant personality…in Zero Dark Thirty. Randomly great.
Joel Edgerton: Discussion of all other roles must be preempted because I just discovered (remembered/had a flashback to) the fact he is “young” Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels. I instantly seized upon a mental image of the trading card I have (yes, I collected Star Wars cards but I was waaay more into my Lord of the Rings collection…) and knew this to be true. And then my mind exploded. I guess I should quit wondering where this Joel Edgerton guy came from if he has actually been on the fringes all these years.
Chris Pratt: Parks and Recreation! But before Parks and Rec, my thought would have been Everwood! Wow, that really takes me back…
Taylor Kinney: This guy pops up on The Vampire Diaries, then starts dating Lady GaGa, and now has a starring role in Chicago Fire. So I imagine he made some kind of deal with the devil.
Christopher Stanley: Honorable mention since whenever I see him I can only think of Mad Men; “Henry Francis.”
Mark Valley: Human Target, Fringe, Boston Legal, and Body of Proof apparently, etc. All I can think about for some reason when I see him is that he was married to Anna Torv. But not any longer…
Whenever you embed yourself into a new environment, inevitably you start to pick up on new phrases, slang, and new definitions for old words. Studying International Relations and Conflict Resolution introduced me to a bevy vocabulary that I needed to assimilate into my own in order to talk the talk. Talking about television is a bit easier; as America’s true favorite pastime, most of us have enough experience to engage in the conversation. But when you start to look at TV a little more critically and analytically, you get immersed in a new set of terms. Being a novice, I am slowly accumulating this new language, both official and newly coined. Here are but a few of the terms I often see swirling around (and some I’ve used myself):
Agency: This term is likely to come up in a variety of disciplines but in the television world it usually refers to a character’s agency. Can a character think and act themselves, like a real person? Or does it seem like they are simply going through the motions of what the plot requires? Characters can be complex or a series of stereotypes. One of the most frustrating things that can happen on a show is when a character obviously performs an action that goes against their established personality. For instance, I’d argue that Lane Pryce’s arc in the last season of Mad Men displayed him performing a number of actions that went against his personality just to get him to a predetermined point by the end of the season.
Anvils dropping/clanging/etc: Typically when a show writer uses a character’s dialogue to sharply underline the story’s significance and/lesson. This indicates the story was not strong enough to portray this itself and that the writers felt a need to handhold the audience. However, when they under-estimate this, the result is a metaphorical thud as these character pronouncements make their way to your ears.
Bottle episode: An episode carried out entirely on pre-existing sets to cut down on costs and increase the availability of funds for future episodes requiring a bigger budget (like sweeps week or finales). For instance, a Community episode where the action takes place solely in the study room (like when Annie loses her pen in “Cooperative Calligraphy” ). Or, the episode I often think of as the quintessential bottle episode, Breaking Bad’s “Fly,” where the action takes place in the lab. I would argue that Breaking Bad is one of the most success shows to take the idea of bottle episode and turns it into an opportunity to tell some of its best storytelling.
Chekhov’s [insert object here]: The gold standard of tropes, Chekhov’s gun states that a loaded gun introduced in the first act will be fired in the last act. While I completely understand where this is coming from (events happening from an object the audience had no idea existed is problematic), some shows don’t have the finesse to pull it off without being super obvious at the same time. But, again, Breaking Bad takes Chekhov’s ricin and leaves the audience constantly on edge as the poisonous stuff is moved in and out of sight for seasons at a time.
Course correct: The potential ability for a show to steer away from storylines that aren’t working and get back on track with a narrative that works.
MacGuffin: A plot device that uses an object (usually important to a main character) as the impetus for the entire narrative. The importance of this device to the character prompts the events of the show or the episode, but is irrelevant by the conclusion. To use the same example, Annie’s pen in “Cooperative Calligraphy” is a MacGuffin.
Multi-cam vs. single cam: Multi-cam shows are typically those also sporting a laugh track, like The Big Bang Theory and Friends. They are cheaper to make, thus the heavy reliance on them even as the whole laugh track sitcom seems increasingly outdated. A single cam is more expensive and usually involves the incorporation of many more sets than a multi-cam.
Phoning it in: Criticizing an actor or personality for disengaging their talent and merely performing the minimum of what is required, nothing more.
Puppet strings/pulling strings: Perhaps one of my biggest complaints, the puppet strings criticism usually comes into play when you can see the plot moving in ways to get from Point A to designated Point B. The developments do not ring true for the situation and its as if the showrunner leaps down from on high and rearranges the scene to shift the direction. Seeing the puppet strings is like seeing the man behind the curtain, it ruins our suspension of disbelief and sucks us back into reality.
Speechifying: Typically the opportunity for a character to command attention and ascend their pedestal while they dole out their views and their accumulated wisdom on other characters. Often, but not always, this is an opportunity for a showrunner to directly address their audience with their own views. The Newsroom is the ideal format for continuous speechifying from Aaron Sorkin via Jeff Daniels.
Spinning wheels: The tendency for forward plot momentum to halt in favor of just hanging out with characters, performing insignificant actions to the overall plot. This happens a lot in a 22-episode season, and with well-established characters it doesn’t really matter. Seeing them perform even the most mundane of actions should be entertaining. But if it is clear that we are just running in place to let the clock run out, then there is a problem.
Talking heads: The interview portions of “mockumentary” style shows like Modern Family, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. The success of shows utilizing this method are partially based on how well they can balance the action with the talking heads in each episode.
Telegraphing: When a show’s plot continuously underlines where it is going and what you, as the viewer, are expected to think about the action. Telegraphing ruins the impact of the story being told. A bit of foreshadowing can be effective, but telegraphing removes the guesswork and the subtlety. And I don’t want to watch a show where I can determine the ending in the first five minutes.