Month: April 2013

I Myself Can Not: “Amuse-Bouche”

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(in which Jason and Kate, two old friends with a single shared copy of Hannibal Rising, discuss NBC’s new Hannibal series)

JASON:  “Amuse-Bouche” is a step down from the pilot of Hannibal, which is not all that surprising. Last week’s episode was quiet, unsettling, and more interested in setting the mood than with storytelling. We spent so much time in Will Graham’s head that there wasn’t room for much else. This week, we trade off some of that psychological intensity for the standard tv-show business of setting up plot-lines and introducing characters. Instead of focusing on Will Graham, Hannibal turns its lens on the supporting cast, and while it’s not as effectively creepy as the first hour, I liked what we saw. Laurence Fishburne is still great, as is Mads Mikkelsen… and of course, we met a new series regular this week, one that sent my fan-service alarms a-ringing before she even spoke her first line: Freddie Lounds.

Freddie Lounds. Everything about that makes me happy. In case anyone’s forgotten, Freddy Lounds was the scumbag reporter from Red Dragon who causes trouble for the heroes and then gets dispatched in the most quotable sequence in the book. And in the 2002 film, he was played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. What’s not to love? But in Hannibal, Lounds is a scumbag blogger/tabloid journalist who has already caused just as much trouble as her male counterpart. Yeah! She’s a girl! They pulled a Rule 63 on us, Kate! I guess once Jack Crawford showed up much blacker than I remembered, all bets were off, but this is still a welcome surprise. Gender-swapping is one of my favorite cheap ways to twist a character, and the writers are already making good use of it–Lounds plays off preconceived notions of female vulnerability in this episode’s murder scene, and it’s implied that she seduced that one FBI agent, if not countless others.

The fact that this version of Lounds is an internet journalist–truly, they are the wretched of the earth–really drives home that this is a re-imagining, not a prequel. As does the fact that she’s a she and Crawford is played byCowboy Curtis. The ‘Hannibal’ series, because of its nature and how contemporary it is, doesn’t strike me as something that will be radically altered by the introduction of modern technology, though it does add a nice wrinkle to this episode’s climax when the killer reads a blog post and is able to get the jump on our heroes. This also reminds me of Bates Motel, another currently-airing re-imagining of a classic series. Unlike Hannibal, Bates Motel is transplanting a classic horror story from the early 60’s, so the introduction of cell phones and raves feels awkward and distracting. And unlike Bates Motel, Hannibal doesn’t feel completely pointless.

Take it away, Kate! Also: I just realized that not only did I never read Hannibal Rising, I never saw the movie, either. Did you?

KATE: I have read the book but I never got around to seeing the movie. Be thankful I read it for the both of us, Jason. It was so obviously a vanity project, designed to tell the story no one wanted to hear, except Thomas Harris, apparently. Not only was it a prequel, it was also an origin story for Hannibal’s cannibalism, which no one needed or asked for. Part of Hannibal’s innate creepiness is that you don’t know much about him. He’s one of America’s top psychiatrists, so you know that he’s smart and good at what he does. He’s classy and prefers the finer things in life, but he consumes human flesh, which is completely barbaric. Ugh. Furthermore, the explanation for Hannibal’s penchant for human flesh isn’t even that good. He was traumatized by Nazis. Yeah. That’s it. But I’m not here to talk about Hannibal Rising, so let’s leave that in the past (where it belongs) and move on to other, better origin stories.

The recasting of Freddie Lounds as a lady is actually a good choice. Like you said, she’s much more deplorable this way, simply because she uses her femininity to be even sleazier than your average tabloid journalist. She lies to law enforcement, she sleeps with cops to get what she wants and she fakes identities to get information. It did seem odd to me that Hannibal let her leave his office with the recording. Did he really think he could trust her? She’s someone so notorious she’s on the FBI’s radar. (And Hannibal’s, apparently, because he identified her almost immediately.) There has to be a reason she’s so interested in Will Graham, the current toast of Quantico. Eh. It’s obviously for sheer plot development. She has to release the interview so Creepy McPharmacist will find Will, etc, etc…anyway, it was all worth it to hear Mads Mikkelson purr how naughty she’d been. It was beyond creepy…and also threatening. We all know (well, Jason and I do, anyway) how she’s gonna end up.

I haven’t seen Bates Motel, nor do I care to, so I cannot comment on the use of technology. But I have seen weird mushroom corpse gardens, so…Jason, what are your thoughts on that particular storyline? It does seem like they will be having a “killer of the week” thing. Are you hopeful or afraid?

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JASON: If I’m afraid of anything, it’s that mushroom corpse garden. Maybe it’s because body horror is one of my biggest weak points, but that plotline gave me the full-on heebie-jeebies, from the reveal of corpses–the way each hand stuck out at the same angle and the camera just kept pulling back to reveal more–to that one jump scare that was directly lifted from Se7en. Whether it was an homage or a rip-off, it definitely freaked me out: is this how people felt when they saw the ‘Sloth’ scene for the first time?

Seriously, though, the focus this week on a new serial killer worried me a bit. There was bound to be some killer-of-the-week element, since it’s almost impossible to sell a new series if it’s not a procedural, but I’m still holding out hope that we’re not going to follow the same pattern every week. It’s the most boring route this series could go down, although if they keep up the good character work, I’ll be more forgiving. And as I said, this week’s killer was unnerving in a way that I don’t usually find stuff on television unnerving… but that could work against the series, too. The whole “mushroom garden” thing was bizarre and unsettling, but if Hannibal starts pulling out a super-crazy-gimmick-killer every week, the writers might try to top themselves every week and end up shooting past ‘over-the-top’ and straight into the realm of American Horror Story.

But the ‘Hannibal’ series has always hovered between realism and pure fantasy. Buffalo Bill–a killer who keeps his victims trapped in a well in his basement and then skins them to make a suit–feels like the kind of maniac you might hear about on CNN, but just barely. If you tweak just a few elements of the story, it swerves into Gothic-esque, B-movie territory… which is exactly what happened in the sequel, where the antagonist was a super-villain who kept a pen of wild boars and collected tears from the children he molested. I’m hoping that Hannibal the show never gets as outright ugly and gross as Hannibal the novel/movie, but Bryan Fuller wants to bring the fantastical, Gothic elements of the series to the surface, and he’s done a fine job so far. That room full of antlers was way more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than anything from Harris’s books, but it worked, and I’m still loving that bird-stag hallucination. Even when it shows up in this episode as part of an incredibly obvious dream sequence–oh, the Hobbs case is leading Will into the darkness–I’m on-board, because most shows wouldn’t even attempt such a blatant visual metaphor, and even fewer would pull it off as well as Hannibal.

Speaking of Will’s descent into madness, how great were those conversations between him and Dr. Lecter?

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KATE:  Oh, those scenes were wonderful, although I could do without Will’s survivor’s guilt. Similarly, I’m not a fan of him creeping around the hospital after Hobbes’ daughter. It feels like wasted space and story, although she’ll be a plot point in next week’s episode. Anyway, at this point I’ll take any scene that occurs in Hannibal’s office. That set design alone is…man, did you see that couch? The red walls? I love it. The costumes leave a little bit to be desired, though. Does anyone else picture Dr. Lecter not dressing like he’s a 70s game show host? Cause I do.

Next week’s preview seems to suggest that there will be a different killer every week. I guess it’s a natural growing pain of the show. After all, they can’t justify keeping Will around without something to investigate. Like you said, doing with that would mean they’d have to raise the stakes every week or introduce some weird special effects to keep the audience guessing. After two episodes, I’m starting to wish they had followed the path of season one of True Blood, which involved a single unseen killer terrorizing the town until the final reveal in the season finale. Frankly, it’s just hard for me to believe there are so many twisted, unique serial killers out there, especially when you consider how frequently they’re occurring. Again, this is a problem with most of the Hannibal books. There has to be something for Will or Clarice or Hannibal to investigate, but the audience won’t want to invest time if it’s a routine murder/suicide. You have to raise the stakes to making a woman suit (strangely, I buy it) to eating a still living brain of your nemesis to Nazis being…well, Nazis. Actually, Hannibal Rising didn’t really raise the stakes at all, which may be why it was so very awful.

Speaking of the mushroom garden, yes, that reaction shot was totally lifted from Se7en. I like to think that The Walking Dead has given network television the ability to pawn more gore on the audience and have it play off as acceptable. This show airs at 10 pm, which is a point in its favor. Hell, that’s half the reason Nip/Tuck got away with so much plastic surgery montages. At any rate, Hannibal continues to be a visually striking show. The shot of the last victim being ungagged will stay with me for awhile. Jason, we’re on the same page about body horror. Forever and always.

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I Myself Can Not: “Pilot”

(Kate and I have been friends for a long time, about ten years, give or take, and since 2005 I don’t know if we’ve gone a whole conversation without some reference to the ‘Hannibal’ franchise. So when I decided to write about the new NBC series, it seemed right to invite her along.)

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JASON: Can I say right up front that I thought this would be terrible? When I first heard about Hanibal, I pictured a rote police procedural about an FBI agent and his weeeeeeird partner, with characters from the ‘Hannibal’ franchise slotted into it. I figured there would be the requisite references to the original series, but in the worst, most prequel-y way, with a lot of winks to the audience and clumsy foreshadowing. Basically, I expected Law & Order but one of the characters is constantly making puns about cannibalism.

But Hannibal is not that, and it’s actually really good. At least in the pilot. it’s a visually stunning crime drama more interested in the characters than the serial-killer of the week. Will Graham is probably the least memorable character in the entire ‘Hannibal’ mythos–even though he’s the protagonist of the first book–but I was invested in him from the first scene of the show, thanks to Hugh Darcy’s vulnerable portrayal and the neat trick of having Will live through the actions of the killer he’s investigating. You can see from the start what a terrible strain this talent has on Will, but also how crucial it is to his life. And then there’s the hallucinations…

But before I get too carried away: what about you, Kate? Did you go into this show expecting anything in particular?

KATE:  Yes. I was also expecting it to be terrible, like some unneeded reboot or revision of the original books with the occasional cheesy nod to fans (ha-ha, Hannibal is drawing the Florence Duomo!) And it is a little like that, but like you said, it’s actually good. The characters are recognizable but familiar…the sets are similar to those we’ve seen in other ‘Hannibal’ movies. Anyway, a lot of this is due to the creative edge of Bryan Fuller. He’s all over this show, from the dream sequences to the stylized cinematography. This is very important. Not only has Fuller done a lot of work in TV, he knows how to make something captivating and also slightly off-putting at the same time.

I’m definitely left wanting more. Is this going to be a total reimagining? Or will it have random asides and twists that are familiar to the audience but manage to push the forward in a new direction, a la Battlestar Galactica or Once Upon a Time? Is Hannibal a cannibal yet? Or is the script designed to make us think he is?

You mentioned Hugh Dancy’s performance and I completely agree. (Did they mention he has Asperger’s or did I imagine that? If they did, it’s brilliant and totally works for the character’s obsessive tendencies and skill as a detective.) However, I’d like to point out that the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal is one of the best decisions this show could have made. He isn’t creepy, but you know something is off, even if you’ve never heard of Hannibal Lecter. What did you think?

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JASON: You’re right about Mikkelsen. I don’t remember him from Casino Royale, but he’s really bringing his A-game, an absolute necessity when you’re taking over a role that’s been played by Anthony Hopkins, Brian Cox… and let’s not forget Gaspard Ulliel! Actually, let’s do just that.

Mikkelsen isn’t imitating Hopkins, but his Lecter is closer to Silence of the Lambs Lecter than to Manhunter Lecter, with the vaguely European prissiness and calculated use of language. As I remember it, the Hannibal in Manhunter really just sat around and said mean things. Also: no one in the show has remarked upon it thus far, but if you actually met Will and Hannibal at the same time, Will is the one who’d make you really uncomfortable. Hannibal has an undercurrent of menace to everything he says, but Will is constantly, visibly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Speaking of Will’s fragile state of mind–and you’re not imagining it, Will mentioned that he was somewhere on the Autism spectrum–the dream sequences in the pilot are fantastic. Since The Sopranos, a lot of shows have utilized dream sequences in interesting ways, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them done with this much visual panache. Some of that is due to this episode’s director, David Slade–who is coming back several times this season, thankfully–but I hope the rest of the series follows suit. I especially like how the dreams eventually bleed into something like hallucinations, further suggesting how Will’s instability is linked to his intelligence, because it follows the show-don’t-tell rule. That creepy bird-deer hybrid said more about Will than any tossed-off exposition could.

As for the future of the series, Bryan Fuller said that season four would cover the Red Dragon era, which is sort of exciting and sort of scary, because it suggests that Hannibal will go the Smallville route and become more of a re-telling than an origin story… and we all know how that worked out for Smallville. Apparently, Fuller and company are still working out rights issues with MGM, since they own the character of Clarice Starling (and are developing a show based around her, which I had forgotten about). Even if the rights aren’t an issue, there are about a hundred ways this show could go off the rails. Right now, though, I’m excited.

I have two embarrassing things to admit: 1) I didn’t catch the Florence Duomo reference, and 2) this is the first of Bryan Fuller’s work that I have ever seen. I get the feeling that’s not the case for you, so let me ask: how does Hannibal compare to the other show’s he’s worked on?

KATE: I’m filled with both trepidation and hope when the press jacket includes a show runner talking about a 4th season when the pilot hasn’t even aired. I’m not sure that happens with any other show. In one sense, it’s comforting to know that Bryan Fuller has a plan for the show. I absolutely hate a very promising show that spins into mediocrity because writers have no sense of direction or basic storytelling, like Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Dear reader, if there is something you must know about Jason and I, it’s that I absolutely hate Lost while Jason regards it as legitimate, good television.) So there’s hope…but also fear. A lot of fear. You are, after all, talking to someone who actually thought Hannibal Rising would be a decent book.

Mads Mikkelsen is fabulous, as I gushed earlier. He’s definitely hitched his cart to the Hopkins style Hannibal, but I do think there are certain portions of Brian Cox’s performance at work as well. In my mind, his Hannibal was straightforward, not mean. He enjoyed his interactions with Will because it worked to underscore just how incompetent he made Will feel, which he fed on. At any rate, Hugh Dancy and Mikkelsen have great chemistry, which I hope they continue to rely on going forward.

Hannibal is more of a visual hallmark of Fuller’s style than anything else. Like I said before, it’s his special effects and cinematography. To be honest, I’ve only seen one or three episodes from each of his previous series, but his panache is obvious, no matter what he touches, much like Joss Whedon or Ronald D. Moore.

Did you not like Smallville? I actually thought it was well done for a WB show, especially one that was solely made to retell something it’s key demographic grew up with. However, this was also before fandom got to the oddly huge Tumblr-esque proportions it’s at today.

I want a new episode. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

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JASON: As far as Smallville goes, I didn’t actually watch past the first season, but from what I had gathered, it went off the rails when Michael Rosenbaum left and the writers started introducing more superheroes while not allowing Clark Kent to actually become Superman. I guess that reveals how willing I am to jump on a hate-filled bandwagon, but I think my point still stands that Hannibal could easily screw up all the elements that make the pilot so fascinating. For instance: what if the show runs long enough to cover the Silence Of The Lambs era? Do we really want to see Mads Mikkelsen glowering at Hugh Dancy (and whatever ersatz Jodie Fisher the casting directors dig up) from behind a glass wall? I’m sure Mikkelsen would be great at that, but can you imagine anything more distracting than watching him re-create one the film’s most famous sequence? Also, what if the show covers the events from the Hannibal film? I’m not sure there’s any way to salvage that material. Same goes for the Hannibal book–they’re both two distinct flavors of awful.

At the same time, it speaks to my interest in this show that I’m actually excited by everything I just mentioned. Sure, the Hannibal novel is terrible–but that just means there’s room for improvement. It feels like heresy to even think this, but: a re-telling of the Clarice Starling Hannibal stories, minus Clarice, could make for interesting television. By the time we got to Season 5, the novel of Silence of the Lambs would be thirty years old. I think that’s more than long enough for a re-interpretation.

But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. Right now, all we have is surprisingly well-made hour of television full of impressive performances (we didn’t really get to it, but is any actor better at instantly switching from genial to commanding than Laurence Fishburne ?) and promising creative choices… which is no small accomplishment, but it doesn’t guarantee that the rest of the show will be any good. I have high hopes, though, which is more than I had before.

P.S. I can’t believe you brought up Lost so soon, Kate. It’s like you’re trying to sabotage our partnership before it even begins.