Think back to days of yore before 2010, a more innocent time, and conjure up the most recent television show you watched up to that point which fit neatly into the horror genre. Was it Are You Afraid of the Dark? Or Tales from the Crypt? Maybe (probably) The X-Files? If it seems like I’m going too far back and missing the obvious choices keep in mind that American Horror Story didn’t hit the air until 2011, and The Walking Dead started the horror television renaissance in, you guessed it, 2010. Don’t worry, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s halfway through 2014 already, too.
I’m so happy that The Walking Dead got a pilot and subsequently got renewed for full seasons. Not because I’m a fan of the TV show (I loved the comic while I was reading it but god help me I just can’t bring myself to care about the plot or the characters or GODDAMMIT CARL, GET IN THE HOUSE) but because without The Walking Dead there is no way that NBC would be airing Hannibal right now. And Hannibal, I think, is one of the most lovingly crafted pieces of art available to the masses in recent memory.
(Warning: this entry contains spoilers.)
Yes, I said art. Television as art. Horror as art. A medium and genre not generally considered to be strongholds of high-concept creative effort, and yet here we have a major network airing a show in which one of the primary characters intentionally inhabits the psyches of violent and creative serial killers in order to understand and thereby profile them and who, at one point, barfs up a girl’s ear. It comes at the audience from two angles: concepts that send a cold shiver down the spine and visuals that engage the gag reflex.
I’m not a fan of the recent “torture porn” trend found in many horror movies these days. At best it feels lazy; a game played by production to see how far they can push the audience while still garnering an R-rating from the MPAA. At worst it feels like these movies are being marketed directly to a subset of the population which should be forcibly segregated from the rest of us for the good of the species. In college I met a guy who told me with a straight face that Hostel gave him an erection. I stopped volunteering for group projects with him. But this show, with the extreme brutality of the murders depicted within, does not cross the line for me. Though I will admit that the second episode of season two got close. That poor man.
Instead, the violence serves the plot rather than the dark fantasies of the writers or perceived viewership (which, in turn, attracts a different kind of viewer). Sometimes there’s a direct causal relationship between death and plot development, such as when the judge is murdered during Will’s trial, and other times the connections are more subtle, like the entire subplot involving Abigail Hobbs which provides fruitful ground for a tangle of emotional responses in Will. Guilt at killing, guilt at feeling a thrill from killing, paternal responsibility for Abigail, the list goes on. Most of the time the depravity of the acts is not only meant to cause a visceral reaction in the audience, but also to tell us things without beating us over the head. It’s like the writers understand that intelligent people want entertaining television, too!
That, I suppose, is the key to why I like Hannibal so much. They expect you to keep up and if you can’t, fucking flip the channel back to Dance Moms.
I’m sure you can find purists who are upset by the liberties that they’ve taken with the source material (which, if you aren’t counting at home, is a lot) and yes there have been lines and scenes which seemed too much like a television show and nudged me out of my full immersion in the story, but if it was possible to get it perfect every time out then someone would be doing it already. Hannibal is damn close. As much as the show is a spectacle of exotic mechanisms to display murder driven by psychosis it is also creepy, and funny, and smart, and sad, and deeply unsettling at times. This is what good TV looks like and I hope, after Hannibal has had a full run, that the folks involved keep coming back to give us other great stories.