For some time now, the most reliable way for any maker of TV to prove he or she is serious, ground-breaking and taboo-busting is to produce grim, dark and – that most overused term – ‘edgy’ drama. The Good Wife and Parenthood are arguably as adventurous in both form and content as bleak-athons such as Breaking Bad and Homeland, but put these four excellent shows on an Emmy voter’s ballot and you know that it is the last two that are going to come out on top. The cliche that TV is the ‘new novel’ remains vital in one respect: the more literary, symbol-laden and existentially despairing a work is, the more likely it is to receive sober analysis and the respect of its creators’ peers. Thus it has been ever since the late-20th-Century emergence of HBO’s great trinity of grim: Oz, The Sopranos and The Wire.
In recent years, exploring the dark side has become something of a fetish franchise for both broadcast and cable networks, and its preferred sub-genre is the serial killer saga. There is no better example of how grimness operates as a business and artistic strategy than NBC’s Hannibal. Derived from the Thomas Harris creation that peaked with his novel, and movie adaptation, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal stars Mads Mikkelsen as the supernally suave serial killer Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy as his sweatier, victim-haunted FBI foe, Will Graham. Harris’ creations have been adapted for television by Bryan Fuller, whose previous project was the well-reviewed but low-rated Pushing Daisies.
From a business standpoint, Hannibal was a logical next step for Fuller, who needed both a reputation upgrade and a commercial hit after Daisies wilted. One of television’s most gifted stylists, Fuller lowered the lights and slowed the pace for Hannibal. When the killer and the FBI agent converse, it is in hushed tones, the two of them seated in rooms lit to burnish the gloom attending the grey or deep-burgundy hues on house, office or prison walls. Fuller’s template for the series compels episode directors to make their cameras glide across the frame like ghosts hovering over scenes of mutilated victims, usually women, impaled on spikes or – a recurring image – a great stag’s horns.
Hannibal was met with the sort of rapturous reviews rare for a network drama these days. As a result, it is considered the thinking person’s Criminal Minds. That CBS show, now in its ninth season, is one of the most-watched hours in America, even as it swims ever deeper into its bottomless cesspool of “UnSubs” – the show’s over-used, real-life law-enforcement term for an “unknown subject” – who are often male nutcases far more brayingly vulgar than Hannibal Lecter, but who kill (mostly women) with equal brutality.
Grim reaps rewards
When a dark TV series succeeds, it can yield a bounty of awards –and profits. Yet the success rate of grimness remains a gamble. Dexter, the serial-killer series set in sun-dappled Miami, was a hit for eight seasons, and took its leave voluntarily. The Killing, all dreary, damp Pacific Northwest weather and droopy loose ends, was a pop-culture sensation its first season, much like its original version from Denmark. But by its second, it devolved into one of those shows people watch simply because they’ve made the initial commitment and want to see how it played out. Canceled (twice!) by AMC, its upcoming resurrection by Netflix is a puzzle more baffling than anything The Killing has yet put on screen.
Hannibal itself, for all the raves, has never attracted too many customers. Even less successful is A&E’s Those Who Kill, which thought it was an original idea to have Chloe Sevigny portray a tough-as-nails homicide cop whose closest ally is a professor who specialises in the study of serial killers. It was pulled after a mere two episodes after premiering to dismal reviews and ratings. The same network has succeeded with a better show: Bates Motel, ostensibly a post-Hitchcock riff on the youth of future serial killer Norman Bates (the pert Freddie Highmore), but actually a fine portrayal of clingy motherhood as embodied in the wonderfully lively, witty performance of Vera Farmiga as Norman’s mother, Norma.
Equal opportunity horror
Farmiga’s work serves to suggest that the more women in front of and behind the cameras, as protagonists rather than wallpaper, the more interesting and complex a thriller genre can become. The lack of the same can put a show in a grim pickle. Such was the case with HBO’s True Detective. Its premiere, which featured the torture-murder of a young girl linked to a string of such crimes, was greeted rapturously, as the TV equivalent of deep-fried Southern Gothic, a gumbo mixing Flannery O’Connor’s eerie grotesques with James Lee Burke’s police procedurals. Within a few weeks, however, a new critical narrative wrapped itself around its dramatic narrative like suffocating cling film: the series was castigated by critics for not giving any of its female characters the kind of garrulous gravitas or gonzo wackiness that stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were granted.
The robustly rated Fox show The Following, which stars Kevin Bacon as a melancholy FBI man cursed with a talent to get inside the minds of the deranged, appears − on the surface − to address that problem. Its primary villain, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), is a throat-slasher professor whose morbid imagination is inspired by the poetry and short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. In The Following, there are actually serial killer cults within serial killer cults: Carroll survived the show’s first season to see a copycat creep emerge. She’s played by Connie Nielsen, and her presence seems a sop invented to grant The Following immunity from charges of gender underrepresentation among serial killers. It’s one thing to go to a grisly horror movie and emerge shaken, shrugging it off or contemplating the nature of evil with your popcorn partner for a few minutes.
It’s another thing to return, again and again, week after week, to a regular diet of these TV series that deal in the unspeakable. Why do we do it? To be grateful that we’ve never encountered evil at that extreme? To take our moral pulse and comfort ourselves to know that, while we each have our faults, we are not capable of committing crimes like these? Perhaps. But serial killing – as a naughty release valve of aggression and as a bid for serious artistic intent – has begun to feel like overkill.
I’d like to say that we’re due for a backlash, for a new wave of quality optimism, of the best minds of the TV industry applying their artful sensibilities to the themes of joy, intricately adroit romance, and madcap generosity. But in drama, dying is easy, happiness is hard.
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