Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
To clarify the headline above: I liked True Detective and Fargo. They were well-acted, well-shot, well-dialogued. HBO’s mystery melodrama and FX’s Coen remix had different tones and different site-specific atmospheres–moody nihilism vs. screwball nihilism, sunbaked desolation vs. snowcaked void, Southern Swamp Gothic vs. Frozen Norman Rockwell–but if you watched them live when they aired, then you knitted together an 18-episode viewing experience representing a snapshot of Why TV Drama Is Interesting Now.
True Detective and Fargo are the foremost exemplars of a new way of producing television. Pick your buzzword: Limited series, anthology, movie stars who want to play something besides Superhero or Superhero’s Father. And the two shows rhyme somehow. They both have severe third-act time jumps; they both have an attention-grabbing long take action scene; and they both so badly want to say something about something. Lead characters speak in koans: “Time is a flat circle,” the glove on the train platform. Billy Bob Thornton on Fargo is a distant relative of the Yellow King on True Detective: Omnipresent yet absent, a chameleon hiding in plain sight. Rust and Marty equal Molly and Gus, archetype-wise (the Cop Who Gets Obsessed, the Cop With The Symbolic Daughter). Fargo is funnier and True Detective is sadder and True Detective is sexier and Fargo has actual female characters. They’re both noir, though, or trying to be: They’re both meditations on the Evil, on Life, on man’s place in the universe or lack thereof. If you watched them, you watched two of the best dramas of 2014.
Hannibal blows them both out of the water.
I resisted Hannibal for a long time. You probably have, too, judging by the ratings. The reasons for not watching Hannibal include:
1. The prospect of a rebooted weekly version of the Hannibal Lecter saga vibed like breakdown-era broadcast network desperation, since there hasn’t been a great Hannibal Lecter thing in 20 years.
2. The prospect of another moody murder porn show just seemed boring, in the era of The Bridge and Broadchurch and Top of the Lake and constantly resurrected The Killing and all those still-viable CBS dead-girl-of-the-week procedurals.
3. The prospect of another show about an unusually gifted crime scene investigator also seemed boring, in the era of The Mentalist and two Sherlock Holmes shows and Bones.
4. Cannibalism is gross, and the prospect of dealing with even the implication of cannibalism every week was too much for me, and I laughed out loud at The Human Centipede 2.
5. All the previews for Hannibal made it look like a TV show shot entirely in shadows, with every character’s skin washed out into a pale shade of gray. Twelve years after Minority Report made washed-out monochrome look cool and three years after Hell on Wheels made it look utterly doofy, I’m ready for films and TV shows with actual colors.
6. It’s getting harder and harder for me to commit myself to a TV show that doesn’t come programmed an endgame within sight. I suspect a few people feel this way; hence the popularity of True Detectives and the rising convention of the ten-episode season.
7. “How come there aren’t any original ideas anymore?” screams the pedant-with-a-point lurking within us all.
8. Hugh Dancy was the male lead in Confessions of a Shopaholic, one of those romantic comedies from the late-’00s that was so effervescently bright and peppy and stupid that the only logical human response was to walk outside and punch your first through a wall. (See also: Made of Honor, everything Heigl.)
9. Keith Staskiewicz wouldn’t stop talking about how good Hannibal was. So I didn’t watch it out of spite.
But I was on a flight and I watched the Hannibal series premiere. Then I watched the next three episodes. Then I watched the entire first season. Then I watched the entire second season. This took less than two weeks–my first real TV binge since autumn of 2012, which was when I experienced a decade of Doctor Who via Netflix straight into my brain.
There are a lot of reasons why Hannibal is good. Dancy is great; Mads Mikkelsen is superb; Laurence Fishburne gives the kind of subtle and wry performance that he would’ve made a career out of if The Matrix never Morpheus’d him. The cinematography is uncommonly rich, the costume choices suave and stylish: In an era of Thrones-style kinetic decadence, Hannibal has much more in common with Mad Men, telling whole stories with set design and impeccably patterned ties. Like Matthew Weiner, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller frequently namechecks Alfred Hitchcock as an influence.
But Fuller’s influences are both more and less obvious than the typical TV producer. Hannibal requires you to imagine that the pre-existing Hannibal Lecter corpus–two good books, two good movies, two bad books, one okay movie, one horrific movie–comprises a pop culture mythology on the level of the Batman universe. If you’re a Lecter fanboy–a demographic I would’ve never imagined existed–then you can recognize how Hannibal knits together ambient bits of Thomas Harris’ universe into a genuine saga. The first two seasons of Hannibal are the rough equivalent of taking a chronology from the thirteenth appendix of Lord of the Rings and transforming them into an epic novel.
Even more impressive is how Fuller’s show interacts with Lecter’s onscreen history. It’s hard to think of a franchise with three movies as radically different as Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, and Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. Manhunter is cool, chilly, ’80s, pomo, electronic; Silence is bleak, gross, banal, kinky; Hannibal is cultured, operatic, bemused, architectural. Somehow Fuller’s Hannibal has weaved those three dishes into a new kind of meal. It’s franchise fusion; the only thing I can really compare it to comes from the realm of comic books, where modern creators frequently craft new stories that interact freely with multiple levels of trademarked history. (Hannibal is to Hannibal Lecter what The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck was for Uncle Scrooge.)
All this would just be an elaborate parlor trick, if Fully and his writers hadn’t also located the deeper themes beating inside of Harris’ work and those fine directors’ movies–and pulled those themes out into the open, like a beating heart removed from a restrictive ribcage. Dancy’s Will Graham and Mikkelsen’s Hannibal are two sides of the same coin. How different is the cop from the criminal: These are beats played a hundred times before. But Hannibal takes a cliché seriously. When we meet Will Graham in season 1, he’s a comically unhappy and unhinged man. Dancy plays him with a perpetual bruised frown; the only time he ever looks happy are in those moments when he imagines a murder scene, inserting himself in place of the killer.
The set-up of Hannibal is the stuff of TV-procedural fantasy. Laurence Fishburne needs Will to catch killers, but he knows Will is crazy; so he partners Will up with well-regarded therapist Hannibal Lecter, a psychologist who takes meetings inside of a house that resembles nothing so much as the island from Myst. Cop and Partner Who Is Not A Cop: This is Castle, this is Taxi Brooklyn. This is not Fargo or True Detective, two TV shows which strive for professional realism, where time passes “realistically,” which are rigidly focused on the process of catching criminals–even if several episodes of “process” ultimately come down to deus ex machina antics. (Thank goodness someone recorded all his conversations with murderers for his own amusement!)
And here’s where the shows part ways, really. Hannibal is anti-realistic in narrative: Every week or so, there’s a serial killer on the loose somewhere that looks like Vancouver, who kills their victims and displays them in gorgeously art-decorated crime scenes. True Detective had naked women and horns; Fargo had the criminals’ elaborate 3D-chess plots; but Hannibal has an episode where someone killed dozens of people over the course of decades before finally knitting their bodies together into a totem pole. And that was Hannibal’s version of a one-off episode. (It spoils nothing to say that the killer in question is played by Lance Henriksen; Hannibal has the best guest stars.)
Given that description, you might think that Hannibal is the power-pop version of True Detective and Fargo. But actually, the opposite is true. The secret bummer of both True Detective and Fargo is that they asked a lot of hard questions and came up with only easy answers. Billy Bob Thornton and the Yellow King were Pure Unrepentant Evil; the people who caught them were Flawed But Unquestionable Good. (Even Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard flanderized from an everyman to a chessmaster supervillain by the back half of the season.)
Hannibal never settles for easy answers. Even when you know that Hannibal Lecter is evil, the show takes his perspective on existence utterly seriously. He’s not a gibbering lunatic in the woods or a wandering loner who keeps running into a symbolic wolf; he’s a likable snob fascinated by human nature. Mikkelsen gets all the praise, but Dancy might actually have the harder job. His Will Graham starts out unglued and then gets worse–and then he gets better because he gets worse. Both True Detective and Fargo presented Evil as an outside force invading; Hannibal torments Will with visions of the evil within him, barely repressed.
A telling difference, I think, is that both True Detective and Fargo climax with a heroic protagonist killing a human being who might very well be the earthly incarnation of Satan–and that’s the catharsis. Hannibal begins that way, basically, with Will Graham committing justifiable homicide by killing a serial killer named Garret Jacob Hobbs. Like True Detective’s Yellow King, Hobbs is fond of symbolic antlers and dead female corpses; like Fargo’s Lorne Malvo, Hobbs is fond of indulging in human-society-as-animal-kingdom parables. (Hobbs appeared on television eight months before True Detective started; Hannibal even beat the other shows to the punch.)
But when Graham kills Hobbs, there’s no catharsis, no sense of Order Restored, no sense that The Good Man Has Done Bad For The Sake Of Goodness. He’s tormented by visions of Hobbs. Having orphaned Hobbs’ daughter, he attempts to become a surrogate father–even knowing that the daughter might also be a murderer, even when it becomes clear that his presence in her life might be making her life worse.
All of this plays out alongside the scenes of Will in therapy with Hannibal–and here we remember that part of what made Sopranos great was how it took a stock genre type and set him down on the couch. The whole show takes its cue from those conversations, which dig deep into clichés and transforms them into myths. True Detective absolved Rust and Marty of their sins by proving that they were good men; Hannibal suggests that Will’s “goodness” is just a pose. (Part of what makes Will descend into insanity is his ability to “justify” murdering a bad person.) Fargo argued that the horror that came to Bemidji was a product of chaos that required balancing by the forces of order; Hannibal argues that order is a pose barely restricting perpetual chaos. (The only happy people on Hannibal are the crazy ones.) Both True Detective and Fargo were set squarely in a heteronormative world where men have to act manly. In the kinky killverse of Hannibal, Will and Hannibal circle each other with all the operatic subtlety of characters in a Douglas Sirk melodrama; there’s an angle on Hannibal where every murder equals sex, and every time someone refers to Will and Hannibal’s “friendship” they’re referring to something very much else.
You probably liked True Detective and you probably liked Fargo; the former did great ratings and the latter did good-for-cable. They’ll come back next year, rebooted forwards into some new murder-meditation. Hannibal has the tougher job. In this era of short-term narratives, its first two seasons comprise a long-haul character study that might be just beginning. (Fuller’s been talking about six or seven seasons; it’s for sure coming back next year.) Maybe that’s why I find Hannibal so much more impressive. In an era when the phrase “TV show” has never had a hazier definition, Hannibal is a throwback pleasure: A procedural, a regular cast, four or five regular sets. It’s almost retro–or it would be, if it didn’t also feel like TV Drama’s brightest hope.