Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Horror Show: HANNIBAL, "Apertif"

Episode 1,"Apertif"

Brian Cox once said producer Dino De Laurentiis wouldn't be satisfied until Hannibal Lecter toys were packaged with McDonald's Happy Meals. The actor was the first to play the character on film in 1986's MANHUNTER, but watched as the role passed to Anthony Hopkins in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS a few years later. Hopkins eventually grew bored of playing Lecter after three films, with Gaspard Ulliel taking up the famous "restraint mask" in the little-seen HANNIBAL RISING prequel.
Cox's comments might have looked like sour grapes at the time, but history has proven him right. Lecter's narrative arc over the course of five films (one of which was a remake) ultimately fooled nobody. The once-villain gradually softened over the course of the series as producers, led by De Laurentiis, searched for the fastest, easiest buck. In the wrestling world this is called the "face turn," something that usually happens when a "heel" gets too popular to remain in the badguy ghetto. By the time of Lecter's last film appearance, he'd gone full circle to become a DEXTER-like vigilante bent on avenging his sister's death, but audiences had mostly grown bored with his shtick. Yes, we live in a world where cannibalism is no longer especially scary.

I don't think too many people took notice when NBC announced it was launching a television series about America's once-favorite serial killer. Then the names began to trickle out: Bryan Fuller. Mads Mikkelsen. Hugh Dancy. Laurence Fishburn. Gillian Anderson. Scott Thompson (from KIDS IN THE HALL.) While I couldn't care much about Hannibal Lecter these days, those were names that got my attention. Even though network television has become become hopelessly quaint over the last decade, I thought that kind of talent deserved the benefit of the doubt.

The pilot, titled "Apertif," was a mixed bag, but that's not surprising. Television pilots frequently play like rough drafts for what's to come. In a very literal sense, pilots are job interviews, so its natural to expect a sweaty sense of urgent desperation from them. Take a look at the first episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, which was so broad that it now plays like a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE parody of the series. The ideas for the show were all on display, but they were grossly underdeveloped.

I'm hoping the same is true for HANNIBAL, which puts forward a lot of ideas without ever taking full advantage of them. I'm not going to spend much time dealing with the actual story of this episode, because there's not much there that hasn't been seen before. The pilot reintroduces us to FBI profiler Will Graham, first introduced in Thomas Harris's 1981 novel RED DRAGON. As the novel begins,  Graham is a shell of his former self, a man whose understanding of humanity's basest instincts left him a burn out with serious mental health issues. The new series cuts a few corners and asks us to accept that Graham (played by Hugh Dancy) is already a little shellshocked before he even meets Dr. Lecter. There are a lot of plot points borrowed from RED DRAGON that are used out of context in the pilot, from FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburn) coming to Graham for help with a case, to Graham relying on Lecter's help solving an on-going series of murders. If you're read RED DRAGON or seen either of the movies adapted from the book, you aren't in for many story surprises here.

The pilot is also littered with the kind of vacant visual flourishes that wore out their welcome around the second season of CSI. While some of the camera work is quite beautiful, it becomes redundant by the episode's final moments. Much like the bare breasts on display in SHOWGIRLS, you just kind of stop noticing after a while. I think the dreamlike photography is supposed to drive home Graham's loose grip on reality, but nothing is done to distinguish his point of view from those of the rest of the cast. Everybody lives in this kooky looking world.

Also working against the story is its central mystery, which makes little sense. While programs like DEXTER, THE SHIELD and JUSTIFIED have learned to take their time developing villains (and to work them into the storyline organically,) the pilot of HANNIBAL shows the first badguy the door before we even get a good look at his face. The "plot" was just a mechanism to get Lecter and Graham together, and little thought was put into foreshadowing what happens next. It's almost as if the creators of the pilot believed it would never go to series, so it tried to cram two hours of story into 44 minutes.

I don't mean to imply that the pilot was a total mess, because there are quite a few elements that look promising. Producer Bryan Fuller has an interesting track record of colorful, soulful programs like PUSHING DAISIES, DEAD LIKE ME and WONDERFALLS. Despite their short runs on television, those show still maintain a vibrant cult following, and I hope the strip mining of RED DRAGON will force HANNIBAL to move into unexplored territory.

Also, there's Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who's usually the MVP in whatever project he's involved with. If it was any other actor I'd feel pity for him for having to work in the not-insignificant shadow of Anthony Hopkins. Mikkelsen is a talented, charismatic guy, and it's already clear the show has no intentions of asking him to become a glorified Anthony Hopkins Impersonator.

Fuller also seems intent on capsizing the Asperger's Detective cliche. I'm not sure where it started, but it certainly reached it's zenith with HOUSE: "Disagreeable, narcissistic creep abuses everyone around him while solving the mystery of the week." It's a trend I'd like to see die, and Dancy's portrayal of Graham as a man whose personality disorder is far from romantic is actually refreshing, even if it's sometimes too understated for its own good. It's not a role that stands up and demands your attention in the SHERLOCK manner, but it's nice to see a television hero that knows the difference between good attention and bad attention.

I'm also hopeful that the show isn't going to turn Lecter into a surrogate anti-hero for the show, a guy who helps Graham track down and mete out justice to other serial killers out of some misplaced sense of "honor." While Lecter plays Watson to Graham's Sherlock in the pilot, his motives remain unclear.
It ought to be interesting to watch the relationship unfold between these two men considering their empathic divide. I'm not convinced this is a waltz that can last indefinitely, but I'm willing to give it a few more episodes to find its footing.

(Note: NBC has the first episode of HANNIBAL streaming online HERE.)


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