Serial killers are back! Well, they never really went away as the TV public seems to have a fascination with them, but three new shows have recently tackled some movie classic killers to varying degrees of success.Hannibal and Bates Motel are pretty interesting prequels to Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, while The Following saw Kevin Bacon return to TV as an ex-FBI agent caught up with a serial killer and his cult of followers in a pretty daft thriller.
The Following was the first to air and featured Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy playing cat-and-mouse with James Purefoy as charismatic Edgar Allen Poe obsessed Joe Carroll. The show began strongly, but quickly degenerated into a series of disasters as the FBI were outfoxed in increasingly absurd and unlikely ways by Carroll’s followers who popped up everywhere. This worked well in the pilot, when Carroll’s son is kidnapped by his ex-wife’s nanny, who we have seen but sort of ignored all episode. Meanwhile a nice little twist saw Maggie Grace as the ‘one that got away’ from Carroll – and as a name actor, not one we thought would get killed, betrayed by her neighbours, a seemingly nice gay couple. However, in episode after episode, people we thought we could trust turned out to be blindly adoring Joe Carroll fans, who would commit unspeakable acts of violence for no apparent reason except Joe asked them to.
This was a pretty violent show, but it was the absurdities of the plot that got annoying. Joe never worked that well as a villain, Ryan was pretty tedious as the stereotypical brilliant rogue agent and the number of times people went into danger with no backup was just ridiculous. Of more interest, were those initial double agent characters. Emma the sneaky nanny and gay couple (or are they??)Paul and Jacob had a fascinating dynamic. The show got a renewal thanks to strong ratings, especially initially as the show had a lot of media buzz. However, the sloppy plotting and outlandish violence came in for a lot of criticism. For me, the whole idea that intelligent people would join a cult of followers like this and kill blindly for someone who really wasn’t THAT charismatic was beyond belief. Why would they just do as he asked without question or any moral qualms?
More successful are the two prequels that arrived later in the year. Bates Motel benefits from two excellent leanding performances from Freddie Highmore as young Norman Bates and especially Vera Farmiga who is riveting as Norma, the mother that loves her son just a little too much! The show is set in the present day (which doesn’t really make sense) but has a motel set that looks EXACTLY like the movie motel. It begins with Norma and Norman moving in after the death of Norman’s father in suspicious circumstances, and rapidly escalates in terms of ‘bad things’ happening. The first episode features an extremely brutal rape scene, which leads to Norma killing the former owner of the motel, her attacker. From there, we get Norman’s high school life (seems to be a lot of girls at that school!) and Norma having to cozy up to a police deputy who might have some evidence that incriminates Norman in the murder. Then it’s marijuana farms, sex slaves and Norman’s brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) returning to stir things up.
Bates Motel doesn’t always work, but the reveals about Norman’s character are well done and I love how totally insane Norma is! The mother/son relationship is portrayed extremely well in that it is decidedly creepy. Norma hates not being the sole focus of her son’s attention, Norman occasionally strays away from his mother, discovering girls at school, but always ends up back firmly on Norma’s side. The performances and the writing of Norma and Norman hold your interest, even if some of the plot contrivances are rather outlandish.
Talking of performances, Hannibal benefits from a superb cast and great performances all round. We pick up with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy – William Peterson and later Ed Norton in the movies) who consults for the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit on serial killers. As with the book Red Dragon and the film Manhunter, Will has the uncanny knack of being able to get into the head of killers, although this is not great for his mental health! He sees psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as a shrink, but also as a consultant on cases. Add in Lawrence Fishburn as FBI boss Jack Crawford and Caroline Dhavernas as Dr Bloom (who is referred to but can’t remember if seen in the films) plus a female Freddie Loundes and a proto-Clarice in a later episode and this is a classy show. Mikkelsen received the inital praise as Lector, but I am still a bit undecided about him. Mikkelsen plays him pretty much stone faced but with an air of menace that makes you wonder why they would trust him! Hugh Dancy is the real standout for me. His Will Graham is a fascinating character. His ability is talked about in Red Dragon and we see William Petersen in action, but Dancy shows us the toll it takes on Graham. He is not a conventional heroic figure in that he is pretty tortured and eccentric and borderline nuts himself!
The show oozes class, but is a little slow moving at times. I love the callbacks to the films – a visit to Dr Chilton’s hospital – Hannibal’s future home, and I especially enjoyed the appearance of Anna Chlumsky as a young agent who could almost have been Clarice Starling – her initial meeting with Jack Crawford was almost a carbon copy of the opening of Silence of the Lambs.
Hannibal’s culinary killings – and indeed most of the killings – are extremely graphic and disturbing, almost too much so. However, the relationships are intriguing and the serial killers of the week fairly interesting so far. I just don’t find Mikkelsen that charismatic (deja vu??) compared to Anthony Hopkins, who admittedly veered into pantomime eventually. Perhaps a better comparison is Brian Cox as Lecter in Red Dragon. His craggy menace is more like Mikkelsen’s interpretation.
The addition of Gillian Anderson as Lector’s own shrink is another interesting one. Anderson is back to an American accent after years as a Brit, and I am dying to know more about the history between those characters.
Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller has an interesting mix of shows to his name. A major player on Star Trek Voyager, he is best known for Pushing Daisies, and also the brief but brilliant Wonderfalls. Unfortunately, ratings have dipped since the premiere so while The Following and Bates Motel already have second seasons, Hannibal is less certain – and Fuller has a horrible history of great shows cancelled too soon. Fingers crossed as I am keen to see more of these characters.