Sunday, April 7, 2013

TV Review: Hannibal



You could argue that the Serial Killer Era of television that we're currently living in began with Showtime's Dexter, but NBC's Hannibal is so clearly and obviously designed as an answer and competitor to Fox's The Following that it is impossible to not compare the two.

Following, starring Kevin Bacon and an ever-expanding host of relatively obnoxious secondary characters, has the advantage of arriving first, putting Hannibal in a position of catching up.

Following centers on a serial killer (James Purefoy) obsessed with and inspired by the work of Edgar Allen Poe who, having been caught once and imprisoned, orchestrates a prison break with the help of cult of followers ready and willing to kill and orchestrate general mayhem at his command. Bacon, then, is the emotionally- and physically-damaged FBI agent charged with catching him, he being the one who caught him in the first place.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is a prequel to the Hannibal Lector tales immortalized by Anthony Hopkins, in which a brilliant psychiatrist (played by Mads Mikkelson) who moonlights as a murderous cannibal aids the FBI in catching other, lesser evil-doers. He is hunted, unknowingly at this point, by an emotionally- and mentally-damaged FBI agent (Hugh Dancy) who has a knack for getting into the heads of killers but subsequently has trouble getting out of them afterwards.

*Fun side note: Dancy and Mikkelson both played knights of the round table in Antoine Fuqua's 1994 "King Arthur," an underrated sword-and-sandals flick starring Clive Owen as the titular King of the Britains.

Having only seen one episode of Hannibal it is hard to declare an outright winner in the Killer Wars, but if the pilot is any indication Hannibal is the superior series for one simple reason: Showmanship.
Much like the dueling magicians in Nolan's The Prestige, both Following and Hannibal are performing the same trick, but the NBC cannibal flick knows how to dress it up better. The visuals of Hannibal, particularly the macabre fantasies that play out inside Dancy's mind, have an eerie artistic quality and the scene progression is stitched together in sometimes-jarring jump cuts that evoke the unstable nature of both the hunter and the hunted.

Then there's the central dynamic of the show. Where Kevin Bacon's Agent Hardy knows full-well the man he is pursuing (absent a few anonymous henchman that pop up from week to week only to be quickly dispatched without providing any information) Dancy's Agent Graham and Hannibal the Cannibal are locked in a Cat and Mouse game where the cat doesn't know who, or what, the mouse is.
It is that dramatic irony, the viewer knowing something the protagonist does not, that infuses Hannibal with an nervous unpredictability as the two men throw psycho-babble at each other over a suspicious home-cooked plate of protein scramble.

As for the violence, both shows have made it clear they want to push the envelope. So far on the Following we've seen stabbings, eye gougings and strangulations with an amount of blood typically reserved for pay-cable fare whereas in a single episode of Hannibal we had three slit throats and a naked woman, fully displayed, impaled on the antlers of a stag.

Whether or not the violence is used as a higher commentary on society remains to be seen, but suffice it now to say that neither show is for the faint of heart. The content of Hannibal, while I suspect it will be of lesser quantity, is perhaps more objectionable simply because it is presented in a darker, sociopathic lens compared to the relative smash-and-grab superficiality of Following.

Kevin Bacon's character is more likeable, while Hugh Dancy's agent is more interesting. Likewise, Joe Carrol is a more charismatic presence while Hannibal Lector delivers more chills, despite being at times unintelligible behind Mikkelson's thick accent. Lawrence Fishbourne, as fellow FBI handler on Hannibal, also presents more gravitas compared to the FBI team at Fox which is diluted among more faces than I care to count.

Hannibal: B+ 

The Following: B

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