News Column

'Hannibal,' 'The Following,' and TV's serial-killer overload: TV Talk this week

April 27, 2013


April 27--It happens every time. Every time a news event focuses attention -- for a while -- on the tragedy of real-life violence, there's a flurry of reaction among TV networks and producers who scramble to pull episodes of shows whose fictional storylines too closely mirror reality.

In December, the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., prompted Fox to pull new episodes of "Family Guy" and "American Dad," for reasons the network didn't state but reportedly involved content feared to be offensive. Syfy yanked a scheduled episode of its supernatural drama, "Haven," because of scenes involving school violence.

The pattern continued with the recent, all-too-real horrible events in Boston: bombs exploding at the Boston Marathon, a police manhunt, the death of one suspect and the capture of another.

This time, ABC delayed the April 22 episode of "Castle," because of a storyline about a bomb. An older episode of the series, also featuring a bomb plot, aired on TNT in syndication. The cable network apologized.

"Family Guy" popped up again -- Fox removed a recent episode from Hulu and showing Boston Marathon runners being run over by one of the show's characters.

More surprising, in a way, was how the decision to remove a scheduled episode of "Hannibal," the NBC serial-killer drama, came down. The episode in question was about an adult who brainwashes children to murder other children.

Bryan Fuller, who created "Hannibal," told Variety that it was his call to pull the episode. Because of events such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston bombings, Fuller said, he didn't want viewers to have a "negative experience" watching the show. "With this episode," he told Variety, "it wasn't about the graphic imagery or violence. It was the associations that came with the subject matter that I felt would inhibit the enjoyment of the overall episode. It was my own sensitivity."

Cringe-inducing carnage

The subject of violence in television has long been, and remains, a complicated one. One person's impossible-to-watch scene is somebody else's dinnertime companion. So much depends on how the material is handled, and on one's personal tolerance for graphic content.

But what's striking about the "Hannibal" episode being pulled from the air is that -- Fuller's hopes to the contrary -- the series has so far been nothing but a negative experience. Maybe the worrying about that should have started earlier.

Like plenty of other people, I wrestle with unresolved feelings about violence in TV. I'm intrigued, for example, with the tense drama of humans facing impossible choices in AMC's "The Walking Dead." But I look away when the camera lingers on carnage, and I cringe as the soundtrack rumbles with the noises of humans slicing up zombies or the undead eviscerating unlucky victims.

Such moments seem relatively restrained compared to what, in its first few episodes, "Hannibal" has asked us to endure. A prequel of sorts to "The Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" features novelist Thomas Harris' characters: British actor Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, a criminal profiler, and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the serial-killer cannibal with the erudite manner and cunning mind.

We in the audience know that Lecter is a killer with a taste for cooking up his victims' body parts. But Graham at this point thinks Lecter is a partner in crime-hunting, a resource whose psychiatric training gives him insights into deviant behavior.

Enough, already

The trend for serial-killer storylines and antiheroes isn't new ("Dexter" has been doing it on Showtime for seven seasons and begins its eighth, and final, season in June). If anything, the popularity of serial killers as protagonists was sparked by "The Silence of the Lambs," which came out in 1991. Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning performance turned the mad Dr. Lecter into a pop culture sensation.

But this TV season has made me wish for a serial-killer series moratorium. "The Following" arrived on Fox in January and brought with it another crazed-yet-brilliant villain, this one played by British actor James Purefoy. Kevin Bacon -- looking like he thought he signed up for "Homeland" but landed in "Criminal Minds" -- plays the FBI agent in that one.

"Hannibal," which premiered on NBC April 4, includes the most cynical attempt to cut through viewers' serial-killer overload I've seen. Not only do we get the usual profiler-putting-himself-in-the-killer's-mind business, we see Will Graham actually commit crimes. As he sinks into his killer-whisperer spells, internalizing their process, the camera shows us his hands holding the gun that shoots victims and their blood spattering in carefully designed slow-motion patterns.

We don't need to see this. Nobody needs to see this. What makes the fixation on killing even more appalling is that "Hannibal" comes from Fuller, a writer-producer who earlier created ABC's "Pushing Daisies," a darkly whimsical fable about a pie-maker whose touch brought the dead back to life. It was strange, funny, utterly original. And it didn't last very long.

Who's to blame?

With "Hannibal," it seems Fuller is giving NBC what passes for a more commercial idea. Broadcast network executives often say that cable series get more buzz because they can include more violent, edgy content. But I don't think viewers get hooked on "Homeland," "Breaking Bad" or "Game of Thrones" because of the blood. It's the characters, creative vision, and unique approach of those shows that make them break through the TV clutter.

Judging from "The Following" and "Hannibal," Fox and NBC programmers seem to think viewers at home are so jaded that all they'll respond to are scenes of gashed throats, stabbed chests and victims impaled on antlers.

You don't need to be an expert profiler to know it's not viewers who are jaded. It's the people making the choices to produce, write, direct and broadcast series like these.

-- Kristi Turnquist


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