Sunday, April 14, 2013

TV: The Sewer Rises

The MPAA, Motion Picture Association of America, is an antiquated rating system for films that only makes news when the latest stooge is put in charge (currently Chris Dodd) or, as is more often the case, when its ludicrous ratings system results in controversy.  The biggest controversy is violence.  You can argue this is in part because the MPAA goes overboard with regards to two people interacting without guns.


Interaction?  Joey Lauren Adams and Carmen Llwelyn are kissing while standing up in a club in the Chasing Amy trailer.  The two women are not in bed, they are not disrobed.  But the MPAA refused to allow the 1997 film's trailer to be shown to G or PG or PG-13 audiences because of that kiss.

Did we just say PG-13?  If ever there was proof of the problems with the rating system it is with PG-13.  Following the violence in Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, among others, parents complained loudly about the rating systems and the PG-13 rating was created.  This was created in response to complaints regarding violence yet the films immediately slapped with it were films like The Flamingo Kid and The Woman in Red that aren't violent.

We are seeing something similar take place in the 2012 - 2013 TV season.  Partners was a hilarious sitcom on CBS.  But CBS took the axe to the show immediately upon viewing a yet-to-air episode.  As we reported in December, that episode was "My Best Friend's Wedding Ring" and CBS refused to air it.  We explained there was no same-sex wedding in the episode, but the issue was discussed.

That was too much for CBS.  Upon viewing that episode, the show was immediately cancelled and pulled.  This is outrageous when you consider CBS to be the home to Maude, All In The Family and more. It's even more outrages since this is 2013.

In fairness to CBS, it was 2012 when they made the decision.  And apparently, they felt their own homophobia still reigned across the country.  No, it didn't.  As surveys demonstrate marriage equality has wide support.  But how very telling that CBS was willing to kill Partners because, in the words of of one CBS v.p., "We were afraid we were going to get caught on the wrong side of a heated public debate."  That was a concern.

And yet there's no concern at all over NBC's Hannibal.

It's just like the MPAA.

Hannibal is NBC's latest Thursday night hour long trauma.  It revolves around Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a character created in the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  Red Dragon has sold well over the years and is considered very popular; however, it was Harris' sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, which became a monster of trash fiction and paperback sales.  Efforts to turn the page-turner into a film were stymied by the script which was dark and morose leading participants such as would-be Hannibal Gene Hackman,  and would-be Clarice Starling's Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan to walk while the film was in development. Ted Tally finally cracked it.

In his Academy Award winning screenplay, Tally found ways to emphasize Starling and her odyssey which enhanced the overall journey and also added to the mystery of Hannibal the Cannibal.  Tally also found a wonderful rhythm for the scenes (that was falsely credited to director Jonathan Demme -- it was Tally and it's in the shooting script).  To get rid of a ton of exposition and keep the pace moving, Tally would end a scene early allowing the next scene to be the response.  The mechanics allowed the inherent homophobia of the project to be ignored resulting in huge box office, Anthony Hopkins winning a Best Actor Academy Award and Jodie Foster picking up a second Academy Award for the film despite the universal ridicule of  the very bad accent she utilized for the role.

With Foster scoring her first $100 million grosser and Anthony Hopkins on a career high, studios were eager to have a sequel.   Thomas Harris wasn't able to dash off a quick sequel so it would be eight years before his Hannibal was published.  It would quickly be filmed -- with Julianna Moore replacing Foster -- and released in 2001 when both she and Demme found the new material repugnant.   Hannibal did earn more dollars than The Silence of the Lambs; however, it needs to be remembered that Hannibal was released ten years later when ticket prices were considerably higher.  The Silence of the Lambs became the number one picture of its year, world-wide, based on box office.  Hannibal would be number ten.  Silence would be nominated for seven Academy Awards and to win Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture.  There were no major nominations or awards for Hannibal.

The film was so out there that it destroyed the reception for Red Dragon the following year -- a far better film that grossed $100 million less at the box office.   This was followed by 2007's Hannibal Rising which bombed in the US but sold tickets worldwide (about half as many as Red Dragon allowing for approximately $50 million in international ticket sales). 

Along the way there was an October 2002 Saturday Night Live hosted by Matt Damon featuring a sketch entitled Hannibal Goes to College  because, frankly, the idea of the early days of Hannibal is laughable.

When it comes to laughable TV, one instantly thinks NBC.  In the 90s, NBC was the hottest network on broadcast television.  Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, ER, Mad About You and more dominated the airwaves.  In the '00s, NBC thought whimsey and sexism were the way to go and it was the end of the network which now comes in regularly behind not just ABC, CBS and Fox but also behind Telemundo.  And it's this sewer dweller which brings us Hannibal.

Hannibal is Bryan Fuller's fifth attempt at a successful TV show.  Already, it feels like the other four bombs.  This one stars Hugh Dancy, a middle-aged actor who has been the leading man in one bomb after another and who, for some weird reason, despite being nearly six feet tall, films short.  Lacking in talent, Dancy appears to steal from Joe Queenan and go the Mickey Roarke For A Day Route.  And it's the 80s Roarke who squandered talents and refused to shower -- how Kim Basinger did repeatedly complain about his odor.

An exec at NBC argues with us, he insists that Dancy looks like an 80s gay porn actor.  The fact that even the NBC suits are noting how dated Dancy looks goes to the fact that Hannibal is an awful show.

Do we really need to get into the mind of a serial killer?

Fox has The Following with Kevin Bacon which revolves around a battel between a serial killer and a former FBI agent that's presented as evil versus good.  Bacon's character can be dark but his killing the killer of his father doesn't turn into sick and disgusting.

Hannibal, with its very title, embraces the darkness, wraps itself warmly around the evil.

The show's already bombing on Thursday nights.  We got into a loud argument with another NBC suit when we characterized the ratings as a bomb.  It comes in third!  That's what we were told.  But we're talking Thursday night after Scandal has wrapped up its season.  We're talking the last hour of prime time on Thursdays when nothing airs on Fox.   Last week,  it came in second, the suit smugly informed us.   Yes, it did.  When the only new episodes on broadcast network television were Elementary on CBS and Hannibal on NBC, Hannibal managed to come in second.  If we want to be really ridiculous, we can even point out that it increased its ratings -- by .02 million.

[Correction added April 20th, Ava and C.I.:  We spoke with three people at NBC -- execs -- for that article.  Above, we note that the hideous Hannibal came in second on a night when all the shows were repeats except CBS' Elementary.  A CBS friend corrected that Friday morning.  Elementary was a repeat.  That was our mistake and our bad.  We did not check it.  NBC told us it was a new episode (which may have been a simple mistake on their part or an attempt to make their Thursday night bomb seem like a hit) and we didn't check it.  Our apologies for the error.  Please note, even as a repeat, Elementary beat Hannibal.]

Yes, that is laughable.  Even when there's nothing else on, no one wants to watch this show.  In fact, it's interesting to compare it to other recent failures NBC has had on the same night at the same hour.  Take Prime Suspect which was a huge bomb.  Yet nine of Prime Suspect's 13 episodes did better in the ratings than Hannibal has so far.  And before NBC pulled Prime Suspect off of Thursday nights?  Only one episode scored lower than Hannibal in the ratings.

We told our friend, we don't want to get in the mind of a serial killer, we want to get into the mind of a trash purveyor, specifically his and his fellow NBC suits.  Why would anyone think that exposed organs on what turns out to be a living corpse covered in mushrooms and dirt is something anyone needs to see on their TV?

There is gore and there is sick crap that Hannibal's offering.  If this were Vampire Diaries, we wouldn't blink.  That's a horror genre all of its own.  But at a time when we, as a country, are supposedly alarmed by the embrace of violence among members of the public, why this sick, disgusting show made it onto network TV is a mystery to us.

Desperation.  That's what we learned.  NBC is so desperate to have a hit, it'll run after any car that speeds down the street.  It caught this one because it was cheap (it's also airing on Canadian TV) and because it was thought it had a built-in audience.

"Hannibal is a well loved literary character!" we were informed.

Please,  Emma Bovary, Larry Darrell and Nick Carraway are literary characters. Hannibal, by contrast, is more like a second cousin of Jim Varney's Ernest.

"C'mon, Will, I need my beauty sleep," whines Laurence Fishburne at one point to Dancy.  That passes for a sparkling exchange in this writing challenged material.  Then there are the long looks from Hannibal the Cannibal  (Mads Mikkelsen) as he makes comments like, "Well next time bring your wife.  I'd love to have you both for dinner."

It's so annoying and reminds us of the dated puns in A View To A Kill -- which were dated when the film was brand-new and why it was received so poorly.  However, that James Bond film was making puns about sex. This travesty broadcast into our homes is making puns about killing and eating people.

Hannibal is a sick and twisted character from trash fiction -- trash novels, trash films.  Making him the lead in a TV show is questionable.  Doing so in a TV show that, at best, embraces ethical ambiguity seems rather surprising in the midst of a national debate about violence.

The normalization of violence in a show like Hannibal -- normalized?  Hell, it glamorizes violence.  That sort of thing seems highly irresponsible.  But it's made onto network TV -- where fortunately most have avoided it -- and been treated as the norm.

This has taken place, please remember, in the same season, please remember, that a network took the axe to a sitcom because it felt the sitcom was promoting marriage equality.  We're not calling for the cancellation of Hannibal -- the lack of viewers should take care of that all by itself.  We're not calling for censorship.  We are, however, pointing out that a popular political position (marriage equality) freaks a network out this season and leads to an immediate cancellation.  CBS is so offended, it refuses to air the show the following Monday.  The network is so offended, it pulls the videos of the series from its website.  But you can do the most disgusting and graphic violence on the human body in a TV show that embraces a killer and that's okay?

If you're looking for reasons behind Newtown and other violence look no further than a society that treats as normal Partners being pulled for 'sexual content' and Hannibal being aired despite violent content.  And please grasp, we're not talking about the creators.  We defend art, even bad art.  We're talking about the reception to it.  And you can make a strong argument that Hannibal even getting on the air says tons about where we are as a society.  After over a decade of non-stop wars and two corrupt administrations (Bully Boy Bush and Barack), society needs to take good hard look at itself and what it's chosen to embrace -- even when embraced with silence and/or ignorance.

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