07 October, 2013

Vanitas

Vanitas: 
Or why seeing this woman chopped up and eaten is the most fun I've had on TV in years.
 
There's just something about serial killers that gets me going. Unlike with a lot of things, I know that I'm not alone on this one, either. It's why we have The Killing, Dexter, The Following, and the Millennium Trilogy. It's why Seven is so well respected and copied or why we still make movies about the Zodiac Killer. . . Or why David Fincher has a career, really. Human beings are drawn to the morbid. With Hannibal we are shown the madness of serial killers without having to deal with its grotesque realities. It's gory fun from a distance.

Or, well, maybe not "fun" exactly. . .

Hannibal, as a show, strikes a particular nerve, one that is deep seated in our psyche. It combines our basic, human love of bizarre, incomprehensible violence with a basic, artistic skill. It is titillating without being exploitative and, whatever it is, at the end of the day it is a well shot, well written, and well acted work of art. There is madness, yet there is a method to it. These things combine into what I would like to call "good TV."

Despite the fact that Breaking Bad is  over, there's plenty of good TV out there. We have other FX and HBO shows and even Showtime have their own quality shows. Hannibal being good though, isn't what makes it exceptional. Neither is the gore. Or the half-nakedness. What makes it interesting is how it treats relationships in the midst of abject grotesqueness.

Episode 2: Living Diabetic Mushroom People.

Weird or unusual sexuality and gender identity has always been an integral part of Thomas Harris' mythology. Buffalo Bill was a hyper-cross-dresser, the Tooth Fairy was a  homophobe with mommy issues, and then there's the guy without a face in Hannibal who can't get off unless he's abusing somebody. Even Hannibal Lecter himself eventually became the lover of Clarice Starling (after a bit of brain-washing-cum-psychotherpay), which is a far weirder pairing than anything else on the Kinsey Scale.

I'll let you mull over that last development while I go out to get a glass of water.

Still there? Alright.

Psychosexuality is integral to Harris' work.These stories are about human extremes and if you look at many serial killers in reality, they have some very unsettleling corollaries.

Evil in his world still boils down to the baddies being some sort of crazed gay person. There isn't a straight male in the bunch. . . or any sort of female for that matter, now that I think about it. Harris' vision of sexuality and psychopathy is much richer and more complicated than the type of queer baddy that you get out of 1970's exploitation movies or, you know, some contemporary opinions of the community. Yet, at the end of the day, queer characters are ultimately still the people who need to be solved.
So damn pleased, aren't ya?
Hannibal, for better or for worse, moves around these problems, if not entirely beyond these problems. It's concern is not with sexuality or about how we see ourselves, but about the connections we have with one another.

The horror in Hannibal is about relationships. It is about relationships between fathers and daughters, between friends, between bosses and employees, between doctor and patient, and between men and women. It's about boiling human interactions to their most basic and then turning that into something extreme and upsetting. It's one thing to say that schzoid, gay crossdressing Nazis are weirdos, but the American atomic family? That's slightly more challenging. It is also something we can relate to without having to judge it. Watchng "Ceuf," I can see why NBC might have blanched at broadcasting it. There is something far more unsettling about people trying to love each other and failing than about somebody who just has a problem with tabloid journalists.

At the very least, we all understand that continuing to portray ax murderers as repressed homos with mommy issues is a played out trope. If that isn't good for society, it is good for the artform. Even though it doesn't feature any queer characters, as such, it doesn't feel the need to single them out as grotesques. Personally, I think that the Harvey Firestein school of thought which is that “Any exposure is good exposure.” If that's the test one applies to Hannibal, then it fails (though it does pass the Bechdal Test).

You'll never guess what the secret ingredient is! (It is people.)
Despite its heritage Hannibal pulls off the psychological procedural in a way that works and doesn't feel as though this is something that has done before. It's a great parlour trick and what's more is that however much it is a trick, it is one backed up with solid writing, carefully laid out camera work, and some excellent acting. It exists to show all of the other shows on TV, the ones indebted to Silence of the Lambs, how this sort of thing is done.

This program could have easily just been a re-hash of other programs in the past. It could have been a cash-in and it also could have leaned into the older, more troubling parts of this series' canon as a way to generate controversy or attention. Yet, despite the odds, somebody managed to make an intriguing program about one of the most parodied pop culture icons of all time. That's exciting. Hannibal isn't new, it just feels like it. Maybe that's because it's so well done.

Season 2 should be a real blast. Or, well, not a "blast" exactly. . .


HERE COMES THE AD ZONE:

(My friend Cruz and I did an episode of our podcast about the show. There might be some crossover between here and there. Give it a listen, won't you?)

(Some other friends and I are making a comic book anthology. If you can't give on our Kickstarter, tell a friend, or better yet, buy a copy of our previous anthology. Or even better yet give to our Kickstarter, tell a friend, and then a buy a copy. Everybody wins!)

SIDE NOTES:

A) Goooooooddamn is this show gory. How the fuck did anyone ever get away with this stuff? And on network TV!

B) Years and years ago I wrote a top ten list of serial killers. It is not as good as I remember it being.

C) Lance Henrikson appears in an episode as, you guessed it, a psychopath. Considering the story arc Will is going through, and considering that Henrikson played Frank Black, an FBI profiler on Millennium, this means that the series is smart enough to get post-modern without calling attention to it. Good for them.