Friendship, family… murder (TV review: Hannibal)

Perhaps the most unexpectedly touching portrayal of friendship on television has emerged in Hannibal, NBC’s re-imagining of fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in middle age.

Instead of depicting Lecter and his ultimate adversary, FBI investigator Will Graham, as uneasy allies or suspicious colleagues, ‘Hannibal’ has chosen to forge a surprisingly deep friendship between the two men.

Hannibal is drawn to Will because Will’s vast imagination and tainted psyche mean he can understand what makes killers tick. Will is drawn to Hannibal, because Hannibal does a wonderful imitation of kindness. (A psychopath’s a great person to have around, because they’ll always tell you what you want to hear.)

If we didn’t know better, we’d assume that Will might be a good influence on Hannibal – he might even ‘save’ him from himself. But, of course, we do know better. The resulting audience reaction to their friendship is a hysterical kind of hopefulness, chased by queasy anticipation of bad things to come.

‘Hannibal’ bolsters this unexpected friendship with a makeshift family: Will and Hannibal taking on the role of surrogate parents to orphaned Abigail, herself a daughter of a serial killer. As in his scenes with Will, Hannibal offers Abigail much-needed comfort – comfort that the non-psychopaths in her life have been completely unable to provide. Yet the audience recognises that he’s grooming her as his accomplice – or, at the very least, content to make her dinner, if she becomes a threat. There’s that emotional cocktail again: hope and dread, stirred up nicely.

Inevitably, as ‘Hannibal’ becomes increasingly consumed by the subtleties of its character interactions (and creates stunning actor showcases for Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Kacey Rohl), the other story aspects feel underdeveloped, half-forgotten. The show is rapidly outgrowing its serial-killer-of-the-week format (if it ever fitted that format to begin with) and yet, without it, ‘Hannibal’ feels shapeless:

Where are we going? What’s on the horizon? What are the stakes? (Even ‘Mad Men’ struggles to sustain itself on character moments alone.)

Indeed, ‘Hannibal’ still has work to do in creating a show with longevity, but it is getting there. Throughout the first few episodes, I was nagged by its uneven portrayal of psychiatry, its unconvincing depiction of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, its jarring episode construction, its try-hard visuals. But, as ‘Hannibal’ has begun to hit its emotional notes (and hit them exquisitely), all of that has ceased to matter.

That’s the secret of good storytelling, after all: find the human drama and how you got there doesn’t matter.

Unlikely new TV obsession: Survivor!

Survivor is one of the few big US reality shows that never made it over to the UK. So, despite Survivor being the old man of Reality, I’d actually never seen a single episode of it. In fact, I was always under the impression that it was just ‘Big Brother on an Island’. However, I recently read creator Mark Burnett’s book and that, combined with Twitter excitement over the season finale, prompted me to marathon the latest season while I was unwell last week.

Can. Worms. Open.

Let’s pretend it’s the year 2000, guys, because Survivor is awesome!

(Can I call in sick from my job for the next six months, so that I can watch all the other 25 seasons of Survivor?)

Hey, here are some reasons I love Survivor! (Includes important picspam of Survivor abs. For science!)
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Reasons to watch ice dance

It’s where sport meets art. This is true of a lot of figure skating, but in ice dance, the artistic demands are highest. And, while ice dance is open to a lot of criticism for not being ‘sporty’ enough, I say that if you’re balancing your partner on your thigh while she does a back-bend on one leg, while you’re skating at speed across the ice, IT’S A SPORT.

It’s a story in four minutes. I love that a brief ice dance program can conjure up a wealth of emotions and experiences. The best programs are like bitesize novels to me.

It’s FUN. Just this season in ice dance, we have a Rolling Stones medley, an (ill-advised) recreation of a bad 90s movie, and a reimagining of Carmen starring Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele!

It’s accessible. I love figure skating, but I’ll grudgingly admit it’s a little hard to get into. With ice dance, however, it’s much easier to understand why the top teams are the top teams. You might not be able to tell when a triple axel’s underrotated, but you’ll be able to tell immediately when an ice dance team’s twizzles (rotations on the ice) are out of sync.

It’s rapidly evolving. The judging system for ice dance changed a few years ago, which has led teams to incorporate harder lifts and spins into their programs. Unlike Pairs, where all the lifts and throws are basically the same, ice dance teams are pushing to do new and daring things every year.

It has pop music. Ice dance allows skating to music with lyrics, so that means there’s a lot of pop music. All right, some people would argue that Jennifer Lopez songs don’t enhance sport, but you know what? The Spanish version of ‘On the Floor’ is CATCHY.

It has showmance. Figure skating must be the only sport where creating the illusion that you’re fucking earns you MORE POINTS. No, Scott and Tessa are not a couple. Yes, they will keep pretending they MIGHT be until the next Olympics.

Photo credit: Elina Paasonen

Book review: Reality TV – Troy DeVolld (non-fiction, ***)

Reality TV is a strange beast. Nowhere else is the role of the writer more intentionally obscured. People either seem to think that reality TV doesn’t have writers (the producers just switch the camera on and presto! you have a TV show!), or they suspect that every word is scripted and the reality show stars are just speaking lines like actors.

The reality of Reality is, of course, somewhere in between. Writers don’t (often) put words in their stars’ mouths, but the footage is painstakingly shaped to form a narrative that builds to moments of suspense, heartbreak and hilarity.

To use author Troy DeVolld’s analogy: it’s like trying to write a story using only refrigerator magnet poetry words. You need to tell a story, but you can only use the footage you have to tell that story. Reality TV writing is clearly a skilled profession and it deserves more props.

Although intended as a guide for students and would-be reality TV writers, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market should be of interest to any TV fan who wants to learn a little more about how reality shows are put together. DeVolld breaks down the various functions of the crew members and the process of how a show goes from being a mass of raw material and field notes to being the finished article on your TV screen.