Monday, April 29, 2013

Honey, I Shrunk the Psychopaths

Serial killers seem poised to usurp the vampire and – to lesser extent – the zombie in television popularity, at least according to your local television listings. While the lumbering undead of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD continue to shuffle across the countryside in search of human flesh and the sexy, soap opera-esque bloodsuckers of HBO’s TRUE BLOOD continue to thirst for plasma, it’s the well-mannered, maniacal psychopath who’s emerging as the new villain du jour in pop culture right now.

Three new shows featuring serial killers debuted in the second half of the TV season – two bringing iconic movie killers to the small screen, the third an original creation inspired by a classic literary figure. THE FOLLOWING, HANNIBAL, and BATES MOTEL are the latest in a series of high-brow, thrill-a-minute serial killer/crime procedural dramas competing for your bloodlust, each vying to fill the future void that will be left by Showtime’s departing DEXTER this summer. But are all serial killers created equal? And how do icons of murder and mayhem stack up when shrunk down for the small screen? Let’s examine the evidence.

THE FOLLOWING, which introduces the only original serial killer of the trio, is also the most ambitious of the three dramas. Penned by Kevin Williamson, the heavily pedigreed genre writer of SCREAM, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and TV’s THE VAMPIRE DIARIES among other dark fare, THE FOLLOWING isn’t content to give us a serial killer – it gives us an entire cult of serial killers. Kevin Bacon toplines as former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, in pursuit of one Dr. Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a professor of English literature and failed novelist whose penchant for Edgar Allan Poe and the “insanity of art” leads to the evisceration of fourteen female college coeds. Imprisoned at the hands of Hardy, Carroll uses both his charisma and a computer to build a cult-like network of copycat killers who methodically slaughter, kidnap, and even throw themselves on their own proverbial swords if need be in order to help Carroll escape prison, reclaim his ex-wife and son,  and exact a master plan of revenge against Hardy.
HANNIBAL, which uses Thomas Harris’ RED DRAGON novel as source material, brings the iconic Dr. Hannibal Lecter to television and explores his budding relationship with FBI special investigator Will Graham. For the uninitiated (aka those living under a rock), Lecter is perhaps best known to American audiences in the form of Sir Anthony Hopkins, whose articulate, über- elegant forensic psychiatrist with a culinary predilection for human body parts tangles with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in the 1991 blockbuster THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (before less memorably tangling with Julianne Moore in the Starling role in 2001’s sequel, the eponymous HANNIBAL). In this small screen prequel to the events of the ’91 film (which was also tackled with mixed results on the big screen in 2002’s RED DRAGON, again with Hopkins as Lecter and Edward Norton as Graham), it’s a slowly escalating game of cat-and-mouse between Graham (Brit Hugh Dancy) – whose ability to empathize with serial killers and mentally re-create their crimes with garish detail haunts him with nightmares and night sweats – and Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), who is coolly and casually insinuating his way into Graham’s head and becoming his most cunning adversary.
BATES MOTEL also takes on an iconic cinematic villain as its central focus – the stammering, socially-awkward Norman Bates – and subverts the audience’s knowledge of the character by focusing on his mentally unstable mother as its villain. As perhaps film’s most lurid example of an Oedipus Complex come to life, Bates – as once famously portrayed by the late Anthony Perkins– is best known for donning women’s clothes and stabbing Janet Leigh’s ill-fated Marion Crane to death in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker PSYCHO, before going after Meg Tilly, Diana Scarwid, and Olivia Hussey in a trio of ill-conceived sequels and prequels. This isn’t even the first time a show called BATES MOTEL has been up to bat; NBC aired a 1987 television movie spin-off of the same name that was originally produced as a pilot for a weekly TV anthology series based around the titular lodging. Aired over the 4th of July weekend, it tanked in both ratings and reviews, and the network abandoned the idea. Fortunately, this latest incarnation of BATES MOTEL looks to fare significantly better – drawing record ratings for A&E, strong reviews, and an early second-season renewal after airing only three episodes.
Hailed as a “contemporary prequel” to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, which was loosely based on characters from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, BATES MOTEL (version 2.0) explores the early life of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), here depicted with his overbearing, considerably left-of-center mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). Significant liberty is taken with the source material, most notably relocating the iconic Bates house and motel from Fairvale, California, to coastal White Pine Bay, Oregon, and giving the story a modern-day 21st-century backdrop.

At the heart of all three shows is a focal relationship between two central characters, and the strength – or lack thereof – of each show largely depends on both the execution and believability of that relationship. In THE FOLLOWING, the build-up to the adversarial relationship between Hardy and Carroll is seen through flashbacks and is largely based on Ryan’s own guilt over failing to pinpoint Carroll as a suspect after their first meeting, resulting in the deaths of five additional victims. Carroll baits, Hardy pursues in almost Pavlovian response. There is a life-or-death urgency to the Ryan-Carroll rivalry, with lives hanging in the balance and a clock that’s ticking down quickly. The relationship between Lecter and Graham in HANNIBAL is less urgent, more a slow waltz of wits. It’s largely a doctor-patient relationship at the show’s onset, with a gradual reveal of Lecter’s true nature. Lecter’s duplicity – although obvious to the audience because of both its familiarity with the source material and Mikkelsen’s robotic creepiness – is easy for him to conceal amongst Graham’s twitchy neuroses and the gory distractions of other cases.  In BATES MOTEL, it’s straightforward mother-son, nature versus nurture dynamics that drive (and increasingly unravel) the relationship between Norman and Norma. Norma largely employs motherly guilt, shame, and even self-deprecation to manipulate Norman who, after the death of his father under suspicious circumstances, totters on the edge of manhood, with everything from being cast into the “man of the house” role to raging teenage hormones likely playing into his impending unbalance and burgeoning psychosis.
In all three shows, these central relationships and resulting conflicts are the product of egregious breaches in trust. The villains – Carroll, Lecter, and Norma Bates – are all initially placed in positions of trust to the respective protagonist in each show. Carroll, as trusted academic and consultant, betrays Ryan and shakes his confidence to the point of vulnerability. Lecter, as trusted psychiatrist, is permitted access by Graham to his private thoughts and feelings. He’s using those – and his access to FBI case files – to undermine Graham’s work and stay steps ahead of the authorities. Norma, as trusted parent, uses subterfuge to hold onto Norman’s innocence, in the process screwing with his psychosocial and psychosexual development to the point of creating a second generation monster.

Of the three shows, BATES MOTEL holds the most promise. In addition to award-worthy acting by Highmore and Farmiga, the show’s writers have been careful not to box themselves into the well-known trajectory of the Norman Bates mythos. While the mother-son interplay of Norma and Norman remains rightfully at the heart of the show, the change of locale from the original colorless California landscape of the films to the more visually appealing coastal Oregon location gives the show some geographical texture. The writers have wisely imbued the show’s backdrop with a Twin Peaks vibe, a menacing undercurrent of small town secrets and conspiracy that calls to mind Stephen King. How Norma and Norman – along with newly introduced older rebellious brother, Dylan – will interact with their surroundings is half the appealing mystique of BATES MOTEL.
Up until a week or two ago, I would have called a tie between BATES MOTEL and THE FOLLOWING. The latter came crashing out of the gate hard – relentless in its pacing, audacious in its storytelling, and top-notch in its acting. And while the acting – particularly from the two male leads and actress Natalie Zea as Carroll’s ex-wife and Bacon’s current love interest – has remained on point and the pacing brisk, the storytelling is already showing some signs of fatigue and over-ambition. There is an increasing reliance on otherwise intelligent characters doing stupid things to move the plot forward, which is downright wearying at times. Disconcerting lapses in logic, particularly where the FBI's continued naiveté when it comes to dealing with strangers is concerned, are becoming the weekly norm. By this point, anyone from outside their vetted circle with whom they come in contact should be fully investigated and physically searched. How many times do they allow themselves to be violently ambushed before they become (rightfully) paranoid in dealing with outsiders? It defies logic and is a potentially fatal flaw in the writing that, if left unchecked, will distract viewers and pull them farther and farther out of the story.

Although I’ve been singing the praises of BATES MOTEL and THE FOLLOWING frequently and loudly on social networking sites, I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet about HANNIBAL. Truth is, three episodes in, and I’m not at all sold on the show; in fact, I’m bordering on disliking it. Unlike BATES MOTEL, which also casts an iconic cinematic villain at its center, HANNIBAL hasn’t taken many risks with its source material and it suffers in its safety. It’s almost too familiar, and I’m left hungry for more at the end of each episode – and not in a good way. Although Bryan Fuller brings the same lavish visual panache to HANNIBAL as he did to the regrettably underrated PUSHING DAISIES, the show teeters on the edge of bringing more style than substance to the table, the television equivalent of empty calories.
The cast and acting are a disaster. For as much as Dancy overacts and chews the scenery with his over-the-top neurosis, Mikkelsen under acts. I understand and can appreciate the subtleties of an understated performance, but this is like watching an exercise in the repression of all discernible human emotion. Neither Dancy nor Mikkelsen are particularly likeable characters, leaving the viewer with no one to root for. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better. Sulky Laurence Fishburne – here as Jack Crawford, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences division and Graham's boss – is woefully miscast. Caroline Dhavernas, as consultant profiler Dr. Alana Bloom, is equally bland and ineffective in her role as Graham’s confidant. Only plucky Lara Jean Chorostecki, as Fredricka "Freddie" Lounds, a pesky tabloid blogger, shows any kind of promise. She’s fortunately blessed with a great character, who you might remember was male in the big screen adaptation of RED DRAGON and played with sleazy, gleeful abandon by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The killer characters of all three shows prove that like vampires and zombies, serial killers come in all variations – some, like HANNIBAL’s Dr. Lecter, with a better fashion sense than others. But for all their distinctions, at the core of each one’s madness is their twisted world view colored by the world around them – and those who inhabit it. Serial killers – again, like the vampire and the zombie – aren’t born; they’re created. What ultimately sets the serial killer sub-genre apart from its contemporaries is that while there are but a few tried-and-true paths leading to vampirism or to the dead rising, there are myriad routes to the warping and unhinging of the human mind. A traumatic past, an obsession with a literary figure, even the clichéd overbearing mother are all different ingredients that can be used in the same recipe. But THE FOLLOWING, HANNIBAL, and BATES MOTEL prove that it’s how you mix those ingredients and how long you bake the characters and story that ultimately determine how good the dish will taste. Doesn’t matter how it’s plated up and served.

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