Peachfront’s Note: Passages in the Void and Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect author Roger Williams is sharing his thoughts this month on two TV series he has called “surprisingly good.” What do you think? Feel free to leave your comments down below.
It probably won’t surprise many people to hear that I don’t watch a lot of TV. I certainly don’t watch enough to justify paying for it, and that’s meant that I have only recently caught up with some of the well-regarded cable series like The Wire: The Complete Series and Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series thanks to Netflix DVD’s. I don’t need the convenience of streaming because, really, I don’t watch a lot of TV.
But last year I watched more than I’ve watched in decades; there were actually weeks when the TV set was tuned to a broadcast channel for three or more hours. And that’s largely because of a couple of new series which surprised and delighted me in interestingly similar ways.
I decided to give this series a look because it looked stylish and fun. It was sold to us as a reboot of Washington Irving’s classic story of Ichabod Crane who disappears after a run-in with a headless horseman. But in this version he sleeps for 200 years and wakes up in our world. It promised, and delivered, a steady diet of hilarious anachronism jokes as poor Ichabod navigates a world full of automobiles, computers, and unfamiliar social and sexual mores. Ichabod, played to ultra polite straight-man perfection by Tom Mison, opens up by congratulating the very pretty black lady who will become his protector and sidekick on evading the shackles of slavery.
The chemistry between sidekick Abbie Mills and Ichabod has fueled a still-growing torrent of fanfic portraying the romance that hasn’t yet been given to us by the series itself. It doesn’t hurt that both main characters are played with a light touch on the suspension of disbelief lever and that both they and the sets, including some very intricate period flashbacks, are gorgeous.
But here’s the brilliant part: About half way through the first season, it started to become apparent that this alternate universe where Crane could sleep for 200 years was more than just a little different from Real Life. For a brief period those familiar with our history were issuing stern warnings “not to get your history from Sleepy Hollow.” Then it went so far off the rails that even the scolders just doubled over laughing.
Crane’s wife Katrina was a witch. And not just some potion-mixing mojo-reading hag, she was a member of a coven that could do major shit right out of Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy. The Headless Horseman? He’s one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Bible book of Revelation. There are demons and artifacts and secret passages enough to make Dan Brown blush. It turns out the entire American Revolutionary War was just an opening skirmish in the final war of Armageddon.
And the best thing about this is how we were all sandbagged by it, after six or ten episodes where the big magic was just Crane arriving in the 21st century and having to figure out how to use the hot and cold water taps and cell phones. The writers and actors play it beautifully, drawing us in with just a little more “WHOA!” factor each week, until the last few episodes where the crazy bombs are flying thick and fast. George Washington’s REAL secret masonic tomb! Where he rose from the dead! To leave a note critical to our heroes! So they can find a portal to purgatory! Where Crane’s wife Katrina is still around!
This is something not many shows dare do. Sure there’s magic and period costume in Game of Thrones but we all knew that going in. By teasing me into it Sleepy Hollow pulled me into a narrative I’d have written off as ridiculous and uninteresting if they’d shown all their crazy cards from the start. But by the time it went off the rails Ichabod and Abbie were real characters I cared about, and they made me believe in something that probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise: They were real people facing all this weird shit and it had gotten normal for them too.
I missed the first season of Hannibal and had to catch it on DVD when the discussion boards alerted me to the approach of its second season. Like Sleepy Hollow it’s a reboot of a familiar story, the tale of Hannibal Lecter’s years immediately before Thomas Harris introduced him to us in the novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.
Harris is about as hard-boiled as a novelist gets, so we all pretty much knew what to expect from this exploration of a period Harris probably thought was too obvious to be worth saying much about. Harris drops hints; we know that officers quit the force after seeing Hannibal’s murder basement, and that quite a few of his fancy dinner guests turned vegetarian when they found out what he’d fed them. Harris retconned a few characters into this era for the novel Hannibal, most particularly siblings from Hell Mason and Margot Verger. But even when pissing off almost all of his fans with the ending of Hannibal or the almost inscrutable Hannibal Rising, Harris is a guy who describes things in great precision and detail and makes sure they have some basis in real life workability.
Hannibal the TV series isn’t like that. Not even a little. But as with Sleepy Hollow it took about half of the first season to become apparent how … refreshingly different it was.
Our first clue that this isn’t a Thomas Harris joint is the “multiple Starbuckings,” a term coined for the dramatic gender reversal of an iconic testosterone-poisoned lead character in the 1980’s Battlestar Galactica to a girl in the 2004 reboot. Red Dragon was written and set in the late 1970’s and Harris writes very s-l-o-w-l-y so it should be assumed that the two following novels are from the early 1980’s at the latest, when the FBI was still pretty much a white man’s stomping ground. Fixing this for a reboot set more explicitly in the 2010’s is a pretty big change but not a terrible sin against the source material.
And in some ways Hannibal serves us up a Will Graham closer to the one of Red Dragon than either of the movie versions. His talent for empathizing with killers clearly hurts him, and what hurts is resisting the temptation to surrender to it. There is a deep chemistry between Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s Will which has generated untold thousands of words of slash fanfic about their relationship. And this was before we started to realize that, like Sleepy Hollow, this series is set in some weird alternate reality where the rules are different.
Everyone in Hannibal is beautiful and has exquisite taste. Just the food is a reason to watch; Breaking Bad had a chemist on their payroll, but Hannibal has a “Food Stylist” who in turn has links to a world-class chef. The sets and wardrobe are rich and meticulously detailed. Everyone has an astonishingly good interior decorator.
But that’s just for starters. In the “Hanniverse” what you might call “art murder” is a seriously popular hobby, with more serial killers plying their trade in the Baltimore area than have been seen in all of modern history. And these killers don’t just shiv their victims and run; they turn the bodies into mandalas, totem poles, plant them in the wombs of living horses, impale them on antlers, start beehives in their skulls, and wrap living trees around them. Eating them, as Hannibal does, is almost mundane in this venue.
Moreover, in the Hanniverse Art Murder appears to convey limited but very noticeable magic powers. A critical season 1 plot juncture can only be explained if Abigail Hobbs teleports from Minnesota back to Baltimore. That might have just been a continuity oversight except that it repeatedly happens that Art Murderers manage feats of heroic evasion and manipulation to create their Murder Art.
Hannibal has survived for a prospective third season partly by being extremely cheap; an entire season costs NBC less than HBO pays for a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones. But Hannibal doesn’t look cheap; in many respects it’s like a stage play where a limited number of locations are managed with lighting and prop dress to create the illusion of a much larger world. The food porn is of course center stage, and captivating whether or not it supposedly contains human bits.
But the best thing about Hannibal is that, like Sleepy Hollow, it plays fast and loose with its source material in ways we didn’t expect when we signed on. And yes, that’s a GOOD thing.
Showrunner Bryan Fuller has ripped pages out of all of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal series books and stuck them in places where we aren’t expecting to find them. In the Hanniverse it’s retconned character Miriam Lass, not Will Graham, who stumbles upon Hannibal’s Wound Man drawing; later, it’s she instead of Clarice Starling who ends up as Hannibal’s possibly semi-willing captive. In the climactic finale we also learn that he’s been keeping Abigail Hobbs on ice suggesting a side of Hannibal that not only wasn’t revealed but almost certainly didn’t exist at all in Harris’ version.
Fuller has introduced the Vergers, which makes sense because Harris’ retcon implies that they were in his circle of friends at this point; but the series introduces Mason’s man-eating-pig farming venture, which in the novel wasn’t started until Mason had an axe to grind with Hannibal. And even more spectacularly, Will, who is out of the story by Verger time in Harris’ version, gets deeply involved (if by “deeply” you accept “sexually and with murder attempts”) with the Vergers. It’s not totally impossible that this stuff happened in the years before Harris’ version of Red Dragon but if it did, for Harris not to mention it at all in that story would seem a bit odd.
The Perilous He-Ate-Us
Peachfront’s Note: Season-ending spoilers coming up fast…Read no further if you haven’t yet watched these shows and you want them unspoiled.
Spoilers about to start RIGHT ABOUT NOW. You have been warned…
As I write this Sleepy Hollow has been greenlighted for a second season and Hannibal for a third. Both series left all of their major characters in dire straits as the last season curtain fell. On Sleepy Hollow Abbie is trapped in purgatory, Katrina in our world but taken away by the Headless Horseman and Ichabod buried alive. In Hannibal Alana possibly has her back broken and Jack, Will, and Abigail are bleeding out quickly on the floors of Hannibal’s soon to be ex-house.
One thing I can say with some delight about both series is that I have NO FUCKING CLUE what the next season will bring, but I’m ready to buy in for it. Getting me to react that way is a pretty good hat trick for this jaded veteran of Star Trek TOS back when it was the only Star Trek and in syndication.
Had either series presented what it intended to do up front it’s likely that a lot of current fans would have said “meh” and skipped. Both of them accomplished what amounted to a seduction, with a coy introduction pretending to be something comfortable and mundane before dropping us into a rabbit hole of unexpected surprises. This seems to be as new a thing to me as the long story arc was when Babylon 5 introduced it, dropping the idea that characters can’t have big life changes so the episodes can be interchangeable which had been industry gospel pretty much since the invention of television. Nowadays all serious TV series have long character arcs. I wonder if ten years from now all of them will be seducing us with sweet comfortable tropes as they hold a frying pan to whack us with mid-season.
Considering the history of TV, I’d think that a positive development.