Wednesday, January 06, 2016

"Hannibal" (TV series): review

Expect spoilers.

"Hannibal" stars Danish dancer/gymnast-turned-actor Mads Mikkelsen and chisel-jawed Englishman Hugh Dancy as the Lithuanian Dr. Hannibal Lecter and the American Dr. Will Graham, respectively. If you're familiar with the Hannibal movies (Lecter is a smooth-talking, psychopathic cannibal), then you have some idea of what this recent TV series was like. Most of the brief three-season arc plays out as a dance of seduction between Hannibal and Will; the homoerotic subtext is never far from the surface. Both men are psychologists and excellent behavioral profilers, but most of the profiling they do is, hilariously, on each other. The series is based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon (a movie of that same title was made in 2002; it starred Anthony Hopkins as Lecter and Edward Norton as Graham).

The series received heaps of critical acclaim for its cinematography and for the actors' performances. The show ended up slaughtered, however, after only three seasons—served up on Hannibal's dinner table because of low ratings. Obviously, there was an enormous disconnect between the fawning critics and the hoi polloi viewing public. (I recently heard the amusing term "enthusiasm gap" to describe this sort of situation.) I count myself among the hoi polloi on this one: "Hannibal" just didn't do it for me.

To be fair, I had only recently finished watching "Breaking Bad," which was a stupendous TV series (review here). Anything following "Breaking Bad" would have some huge shoes to fill, entertainment-wise, and "Hannibal," which is also ostensibly a study in human evil like "Breaking Bad," ended up being, in my eyes, a joke by comparison. I don't want to demean the hard work of all the fine and talented actors in "Hannibal," and I don't want to say that "Hannibal" had nothing to recommend it; on the contrary, there were some scenes that were extraordinarily memorable. But the problem wasn't the actors themselves so much as how they were directed to act and what sort of story they were directed to portray.

Most of the actors in "Hannibal" delivered their lines at half-speed: torpidly, soporifically, and with way too much seriousness, almost as if they were reading for the stage instead of the small screen. It's probably no exaggeration to say that, in any given 43-minute episode, the dialogue—if spoken at normal speed—wouldn't have taken up more than six or seven minutes of screen time. Mads Mikkelsen, as Hannibal, was one of the exceptions: he seemed to speak in a more or less human cadence. The same goes for the always-excellent Laurence Fishburne, whose character, Jack Crawford (head of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit), spoke his dialogue with strength and resonant authority. Almost everyone else, though, read their lines as if they were in a time warp, and that got old fast.

Will Graham, as portrayed by Hugh Dancy, is a morose bitch constantly moping about his relationship with Hannibal, the man he just can't seem to quit. Graham's special talent is his raw, naked empathy which, coupled with an active imagination, allows Graham to imagine how a crime happened from the perspective of the killer. This puts him on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hannibal Lecter, a genius-level bon vivant whose view of people is distant and analytical, except when it comes to the question of how his victims taste. I don't fault Hugh Dancy for his performance; the director doubtless wanted a certain sort of delivery, and Dancy gave it to him. But Will Graham, as a character, was impossible to like or to relate to, and the show suffered for it.

The story arc of "Hannibal" reminded me strongly of Jean-Paul Sartre's play about three people in hell, Huis Clos (often called Behind Closed Doors or No Exit in English). In Sartre's play, three people find themselves in the same room, and all they can do is talk to each other. They come to the realization that this is what hell is for them: they are destined to torment each other for eternity (Christopher Nolan's Joker in "The Dark Knight" was Sartrean in that way as well: he liked maneuvering people into hurting or killing each other). The main cast of "Hannibal"—Will Graham, Jack Crawford, Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Hannibal himself, and Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson)—is trapped in much the same situation: everyone is locked in Hannibal's orbit, unable to pull away, unable to do anything but psychoanalyze each other ad nauseam.

But what works for a French existentialist play lasting only a couple of hours doesn't work quite as well when the paradigm is stretched out over three seasons (almost thirty hours). I can see why audiences might have lost patience with the series; unlike in "Breaking Bad," where almost every character is given an interesting (and generally tragic) trajectory, the characters in "Hannibal" might try to break free, but they eventually end up right where they started. Nothing really evolves.

The musical score by Brian Reitzell didn't help. Eccentric strings, creepy synthesizers, and wholly unnecessary percussion made the series an auditory nightmare. I suppose the idea was to keep the viewer off balance—nervous and wary—but quite often, the crashing drums would punctuate a scene that turned out to be utterly mundane. This made the music just silly.

The dialogue in "Hannibal" was a laugh riot of psychobabbling bullshit. Although I appreciate psychology as a field, the show did much to hurt that field's reputation, and probably confirmed, in some viewers' minds, why psychology has long been relegated to "soft science" status. The characters didn't often use actual technical terms from psychology (was there a knowledge deficit among the show's writers?); instead, they spoke in lofty religious and mythological metaphors ("Witness my becoming" or some rot). At first, I found this charming, given that I'm a student of religion. Eventually, though, I got sick of all the arrant nonsense and wished like hell for someone, anyone, to say something practical.

And about the much-lauded cinematography: yes, it was pretty, but it was also drearily repetitive: symbolically significant deer antlers, slo-mo blood flowing in splashes and torrents and gouts, teacups languidly shattering and reassembling, Will's funky-ass hallucinations—this was the visual language of the series, and for all its beauty, that language possessed a disappointingly limited vocabulary. The same images, over and over and over. You can only see so much flowing blood before it all becomes dreadfully boring. I yawned during some episodes, and to be honest, I had to force myself to watch all the way through to the finale. I suppose my dogged completism trumped my artistic disappointment.

Mads Mikkelsen did as good of a job as he could in the title role, but he was no Anthony Hopkins. Mikkelsen's take on Hannibal Lecter was too suave, too collected, too James Bond. Hopkins, who was a burly, powerful man in his youth (watch "the Lion in Winter"), successfully projected a coiled, demonic fury with his version of Lecter: he always looked ready to break through the glass and eat your face off. Mikkelsen, by contrast, wasn't feral at all: he was chillingly calm, like a spider that waits, perfectly motionless, for its prey. It was a good portrayal, but I preferred Hopkins's take on the character to Mikkelsen's weird, rubbery lips and the Dutch-accented banalities that issued from them.

I do, however, have to tip my hat to the prop department: the human organs that Hannibal handled, carved, and cooked in his kitchen—lungs and kidneys foremost among them—looked gloriously anatomically accurate. Hugh Dancy noted, in an interview, that the show had a culinary consultant on hand to figure out what sorts of haute-cuisine dishes Hannibal could conceivably serve up using human organs in place of animal organs. Dancy joked that the consultant seemed to enjoy his job a little too much, not that I'd blame the consultant.

All in all, though, "Hannibal" was a huge bust for me. The show was interesting for half of the first season, but when it became obvious that we were stuck in Sartre's hell, all that style and flair, all that sound and fury, came to signify nothing.



John Lee (the Korean Foreigner) said...

Well said. Lot's of BS.

I did like Mikkelsen's different take on Lecter though. After all, Hopkins' Lecter was caged up, thus explaining why Hopkins' version would be so much more... volatile. So I let it slide.

If only the director and the writers weren't so utterly boring.

The Maximum Leader said...

Don't forget that "Red Dragon" was itself a remake of a movie I've always been very very fond of "Manhunter" starring William Petersen. That film has a completely different take on Lector. (Played in "Manhunter" by a very youthful looking and thin Brian Cox.)

Also, the food consultant for "Hannibal" was DC's own Chef Jose Andres. (At least he was for the first season.) I thought the food was the best part of the show in fact.

Of course, I only made it through a season and a half of "Hannibal" before I gave up on it. Nothing specific, it just lost my attention...