Thursday, April 24, 2014


As I continue the slow process of painting up Butcher 3 - so many skulls...I'm having 40K painting flashbacks - my wife and I are keeping up with a few choice shows: Veep, Game of Thrones, and Hannibal.

Show thoughts (spoiler free, with a focus on Hannibal impressions) after the break.

Veep is a very entertaining comedy show on HBO. Veep is kind of interesting in that it has a meta-narrative that is kind of driving the show, but mostly it's about the absurdity of the characters and how they try to deal with the situations they end up (and usually fail spectacularly.) It's one of those shows that works well because of it's writing and delivery and because it doesn't stick around long enough for you to get bored. Veep shows up, fires off funny lines for 30 minutes or so (some hit more than others, but every episode usually has one or two great lines,) then steps aside. Funny, and very pleasant in that it doesn't demand a lot of your time or attention.

Game of Thrones is a show about fantasy crap that I can't really follow (too many names and places, how does anyone keep it all straight!) It's got dragons, swords, and boobies on display, which is cool, but there's a lot more talking than dragons, swords, or boobs which is kind of a drag. Apparently there are huge twists and turns in the show, but this season seems really boring; the only cool thing that's happened so far has been midget jousting at some fair or wedding or something.

I'm just kidding, of course. My wife and I have read all of the Song of Ice and Fire books so far (no mean feat for me considering how stodgy I've gotten with reading,) and we've watched every season so far. HBO's excellent adaptation of the books has exploded it across the nerdverse, and we've watched every season so far. The current season is only two episodes old so far, but it's already on a fantastic track, and the people behind the show are demonstrating an amazing level of skill in being able to adapt the books for television (instead of trying to just dump the events into a script and hope they work out.)

Hannibal is a show that I've been very surprised by. My wife and I watched the entire first season damn near rapid fire thanks to it being available on Amazon (and free at the time for Prime subscribers.) Hannibal was a show that I was very reticent to watch, for a few reasons:

1) It's a network television show. This is totally a personal hang up, but I grew up watching a lot of television, and most of it was meaningless filler. Entertaining, meaningless filler, but meaningless filler nonetheless. As a result I usually bristle against the idea of watching network television shows, even if they've done a lot to grow and mature since those days. It's something that will probably never go away, but it's also a reaction I need to work past. Network TV shows have become much, much better and are attracting some legitimate talent that are using the format (i.e. seasonal television) to tell stories in ways that are unique to that medium.

2) Network TV is typically much more restricted in what it is allowed to show (versus a cable network like HBO or Showtime,) and one would expect that a show based on the origins of Hannibal Lecter would get pretty damn gruesome at points. You don't necessarily need to show that blood and gore for it to be effective (and frequently it's much more effective to not show it,) but network TV standards could hurt the ability of the show to address those topics at all, let alone in a way that gives the proper effect.

3) You know exactly where this is all going to end. While we may not know each step along the way, it is inevitable that Hannibal end with Hannibal Lecter in prison (...spoilers?) This series is set pre-Red Dragon, which was itself a precursor to the events in The Silence of the Lambs, the movie (and book, but I'd wager most are more familiar with the film version) that made Hannibal Lecter the fictional icon he is. Most of the drama in shows like this is either a) finding out who the killer really is, or b) the tension of "will the killer be caught?", but in this show you know the answers to both of those questions from the minute the show starts. Making this story compelling takes a different approach, and (see my first point) I didn't have a lot of faith in anyone pulling that off.

4) Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is a huge portion of what made the character so remarkable and memorable. As others have noted, Anthony Hopkins is only on screen for around 16 minutes in The Silence of the Lambs, and yet his brief portrayal of Hannibal Lecter has become one of the most iconic portrayals of a serial killer in film history (and it's damn near the definitive portrayal of that character archetype.) That is one helluva impression to make with so little screen time, and it's very easy to be skeptical that anyone else could capture the magic that Hopkins brought to the screen.

Since we're still tuning in every week to watch it (after the fact via On Demand, but you get the idea,) Hannibal has to be doing something right. Lets look at where it succeeds, based on the previous concerns:

1) The production values on this show is high. I think it's a combination of budget and smart direction; the show never feels cheaply produced. A good number of visual effects doubtlessly cost lumps of cash to pull off, but in a lot of cases smart direction allows them to achieve atmosphere and elicit emotion without doing anything big or flashy. There are a lot of moments in Hannibal that would fall apart if they weren't handled deftly, and it's a testament to the craft of everyone working on the show that I tune in every week, not just for the plot, but to see how they tell the story.

It's also worth noting that Hugh Dancy, Lawrence Fishburne, and Mads Mikkelsen put up absolutely fantastic performances. Everyone on the show does an awesome job (special shout out to Eddie Izzard for playing a role I never, ever would have picked him for,) but Dancy, Fishburne, and Mikkelsen are crucial roles for the show and their interactions almost totally drive the drama of the show. If any of them was a weak link, or if the chemistry didn't work out, this show would be 100% less interesting to watch. All of them do a fantastic job of playing their characters, playing off of each other, and building the story into something that is way bigger than any of their individual roles.

2) I legitimately would not have guessed this show originally aired on NBC. I originally pegged it coming from AMC, or a similar network. Hannibal gets pretty damn gruesome at times (there's a span in the first season where it tries to one-up itself with murder victims each episode, and succeeds a few times in a row) and the fact that it originally aired on NBC is remarkable. I commend them for being willing to push the envelope, though at the same time that push may also be what does the show in - I'm sure it doesn't help the wider appeal of the show, and NBC has had to wedge it into an odd time slot (Friday late evening) to make it work. But still, props to them for being willing to put the show on the air in the first place, and for supporting it so far.

3) This is a pretty complex problem, and the folks behind Hannibal solved it in a few interesting ways:

3a) Add in main characters other than Hannibal Lecter. That allows the writers to pull the onus of drama away from Hannibal and give you other sources of drama/intrigue/development. A show following the pre-conviction exploits of Hannibal Lecter would have (in my opinion) a hard time not coming across as a rough Dexter knock-off. You need a non-serial killer character to be your "viewpoint" character to avoid that, and Hannibal doubles down by giving you two viewpoint characters: Will Graham and Jack Crawford. One inside the FBI, one outside (but still connected.) Although you may know where Hannibal eventually ends up, you don't know how that series of events is going to effect these characters, which makes each episode feel like it has the potential for real consequences. Contrast that with Hannibal as the main character - you know damn well nothing serious is going to happen to him, which would rob a lot of tension from various events in the show.

3b) Focus less on "when will the killer be caught?" and more on "what led to their eventual capture?" Since the killer being apprehended is a foregone conclusion, the writers can focus more on the cat-and-mouse game Hannibal plays with the authorities. The efforts of the protagonists are important, but since their victory is a foregone conclusion a lot of the intrigue of the show comes from the question: "how the hell does Lecter keep getting away with it?" And eventually, inevitably: "how much longer can Lecter keep getting away with it?" Which kind of loops back around to 3a - the show it still absolutely based on the story of Hannibal Lecter, but he isn't the only "main character" of the show so you end up with a formula that feels very fresh (even though it's recycling some standard crime drama tropes.)

3c) When all else fails, slather on the crazy. Hannibal does this in two very cool ways. The first ties into the format of much of the first season: each episode is framed around a bizarre murder (or series of murders) that only the main characters have the insight to unravel. The murders are so outrageous and bizarre that the show is worth watching just to see what the writers thought up next. It also helps to legitimize why Hannibal Lecter is able to stay under the radar despite performing some pretty heinous murders himself; he's being smoke screened by killers who are many shades crazier than he is (and without his ability to successfully navigate normal social interactions.

The second way that Hannibal uses crazy to spruce up the show is by treating you to very jarring, bizarre imagery. One of the main characters has hallucinations that tie into an early event in the first season, and as the show winds on the hallucinations become more and more vivid and elaborate. I find them so entertaining because they're not just a way to juke you out of complacency; many hallucinations draw parallels and use symbolism (sometimes with a heavy hand) to make points that probably would have otherwise been conveyed in clunky dialog (clunky because it's usually very difficult to have it come off any other way.) It takes something that normally would be an eye-rollingly goofy moment and twists it just enough to keep it interesting.

There's also another aspect of the uncanny that comes up throughout the show, but I can't tell if it's coincidental or intentional. It's hard to qualify in a single statement, but I guess the best way to put it would be that things are sometimes oddly out of place.

For instance: Hannibal Lecter is almost always in an amazing suit. There are times when that attire is appropriate, and other times that he seems overdressed so you notice it. And then there are times where the suit he is wearing is so lavish or loud that you can't help but notice it. This may be an intentional visual metaphor - probably a little heavy handed/on the nose - that reminds us how much of Hannibal Lecter is a facade. He wears fancy suits because that's what someone of his "breeding", of his social standing is supposed to wear; it conveys a message about his standards, and about what you can expect of him. But we also know what Hannibal is capable of, so the suits are a misdirection. And not just a singular misdirection: even if you dig past his initial veneer of propriety, you'd probably just assume that Hannibal Lecter is some goofy asshole who wears suits because that's what he thinks "important" people like him are supposed to wear. That second misdirection keeps most of the people he encounters from digging even deeper to see the suits for what they really are: a cage. A man suit he wears to interact with society.

Or: someone in the production thought it'd be super sweet if Hannibal was always wearing some baller suit. Either is feasible.

The environments are also frequently uncanny. There are often fewer people around than you'd expect, and it makes every encounter between characters oddly intimate, intense. Again, it's hard to tell if this is on purpose, or if the showrunners didn't want to pay extras to fill up the set and make it feel more lively. Maybe a mix of both.

4) Mads Mikkelsen (the actor portraying Hannibal Lecter in the show) absolutely kills it (uh, no pun intended.) It's hard to nail down why, but I think it comes down to a couple of things that he does very, very well:

 - Quote from his IMDb page:
I take my work enormously seriously. When I do something it has to feel right. Everything has to be right. I'm not ambitious about my career, but I am ambitious with each job. I can be fairly annoying to work with. No compromises. Let's put it this way: compromises are from hell.
When you have someone stepping into the role of an iconic character, I think that's exactly the type of attitude they need to have in order to succeed. They need to have a strong vision of the character and then do everything they can do to bring their interpretation to life. Without that kind of passion, its very easy to end up with someone who is essentially acting as the previous actor (i.e. rehashing the original performance, just with a new person.)

 - Mikkelsen's version of Lecter is fundamentally different from Hopkins', as it should be. Mikkelsen's Lecter is one that is, for lack of a better term, still optimistic. He's been able to operate for quite some time juggling his dual lifestyles, and he's been very successful at it: his murders are front page, notorious crimes, he's a successful psychologist that is well regarded by his contemporaries, and the social interactions he has are pleasant and he's generally well regarded by the people he interacts with. He's able to keep his "work life" and "casual life" separate, and the very few incidents where they intersect have been tame enough that he's able to handle them.

As a result, Mikkelsen's Lecter is much more affable and pleasant than Hopkins' Lecter. Hopkins Lecter is a very different person: he's been caught. The facade he carefully crafted and maintained has been destroyed and as a result he allows his "true" self to slip through a little more - Hopkins' Lecter is more contemptuous, spiteful, hateful - while also having that air of what allowed him to fly under the radar for so long (his charm and culture.)

Mikkelsen manages to pull off something I've seen very rarely done: he portrays a very well defined character at an earlier stage in their story in a way that is faithful to what the character will become and simultaneously gives us a new take on that character. It's very impressive, and Mikkelsen deserves much praise for being able to walk that line. Neither version of the character is definitive, nor is either derivative.

All of that praise aside, Hannibal certainly isn't without it's flaws. There is a section in season 1 that left me scratching my head as to why they chose to plot it out that way, sometimes the episodes feel very uneven (one episode in particular stands out to me as having wasted Lance Henriksen on what was essentially a bit part,) and the fact that it's a TV show means that the plot is probably more padded out than it needed to be (the second season feels like it's treading water a little bit to avoid getting to the finale too early.)

However, even considering it's worst moments, Hannibal has been an excellent experience. It's a TV crime drama that doesn't play out like most TV crime dramas (similar ideas but it hits them using different beats,) with fantastic performances, a unique production approach, and a very interesting hook ("see Hannibal Lecter before he was caught!") This show very, very easily could have been mediocre or terrible, but the combination of all the aforementioned factors comes together to make Hannibal one of the few shows I make damn sure I stay current with.

If you have any interest in the premise, I can't recommend it enough. Even if the idea doesn't grab you, if you like crime dramas and can stand a bit of squick, it's a show with few peers. I'm greatly looking forward to watching the rest of season 2; the season premiere promises that the season finale will be damn interesting, and the journey to that point has been awesome so far.

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