Words are living things: a quick appreciation of the creative crew who gave NBC’s Hannibal its savage beauty

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Hannibal

I probably won’t even get around to watching tonight’s series finale of NBC’s Hannibal until sometime tomorrow or later this week, but before this cancelled gem of a network drama, which was insultingly dumped to Saturday nights back in July, ends for good I did want to give a quick shout out to a program that never quite got the recognition it deserved. Yes, it had its TV critic champions, and for the usual reasons. The writing is top notch—it’s a deliciously quotable program. The performances are consistently impressive—Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter now seems excessively campy after Mads Mikkelsen’s unflappable, stay-thirsty-my-friends take on the intellectual, epicurean psychopath. And its unsettling view of human psychology makes it one of the conceptually darkest network TV programs since Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.

But if I’m honest about what I dug about this show, all of that was beside the point. This Hannibal was one of the most visually decadent TV programs that I can think of, and I hope that whatever networks take away from its modest ratings performance and subsequent cancellation, it isn’t that TV shows should refrain from aspiring to create utterly intoxicating imagery.

Think about it: this so-called second golden age of TV we’ve been witnessing is, in addition to being overbearingly male, a narrative era, driven by writer showrunners and writing teams who put a great deal of heavy lifting into their characters, universes, and mythologies. That’s peachy—I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of many of those programs (but not Mad Men, fuck Mad Men). Few of them went the extra mile to be as ambitious with their imagery as they are with their storytelling. Yes, yes, yes, most are quite thoughtfully art directed and had their moments of cool sequences, but so many of those programs adhered pretty safely to some sense of realistic narrative, from The Sopranos and The Wire through Breaking Bad and Homeland, even if they were in some ways sci-fi, speculative, horror, or fantasy (e.g., Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story). Again, not that no TV show has ever tried something visually dazzling—David Lynch’s Twin Peaks certainly had its moments—but few make their visual language as integral to the overall endeavor of the show’s universes.

Hannibal creator/producer Bryan Fuller has attempted to do such with his precious series—Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daises, none of which, I should point out, I ever pursued after the first one or two episodes—but Hannibal is something else entirely. (Fuller is also partner in a designer furniture studio in Los Angeles, so the guy has an eye for how he wants things to look.) Yes, it helps that Fuller’s been able to attract some top-notch directors to the series: Michael Rymer (Battlestar Galactica, his slept-on and crushing 1995 feature debut Angel Baby), cinematographer-turned-director Guillermo Navarro (he’s lit most of Guillermo del Toro’s films), Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube), David Slade (30 Days of Night), John Dahl, Peter Medak, James Foley, and Neil Marshall. More importantly, the show’s production crew has been together for almost the entire run: cinematographer James Hawkinson, production designer Matthew Davies, art director Rory Cheyne, set decorator Jaro Dick, and their teams/assistants.

They’ve made this show gorgeous, and allowed its visual world, outlined since the beginning by the opening credits—flowing blood against a stark white background, those rivulets eventually pooling into a face that could be Lecter’s—to be echoed again and again and again during its three season run. How many times have images of people and creatures disappearing into or emerging from some kind of liquid recurred over the course of its three seasons?

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Hannibal

Admittedly, a few other programs are certainly trying to operate on this level, where its visual universe is working in intentional concert with its narrative themes. Dennis Kelly’s Utopia is one. This short-lived Channel 4 series—only two six-episode seasons—is a paranoid conspiracy drama worthy of a short Thomas Pynchon novel or Alan Moore comic, complete with shadowy quasi-governmental agencies and their hit men, science being used for evil instead of good, and group of ordinary people thrust together to stop a global calamity from happening. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to look like The X-Files or Fringe; instead, it looks like a David LaChapelle photo come to life, all bright colors and brightly lit ordinary spaces. This hot palette made the narrative’s murkiness all the more unsettling, be it the red-orange glow of car explosion against a blue sky being offset by the circling black birds on the opposite side of the frame, the fresh-cut-grass green of a child’s sweater and his classroom’s walls undercutting a moment of incomprehensible horror, or the bizarre site of neon red lights in a warehouse visually echoing the lines of a self-inflicted wound. Utopia‘s pop palette boldly distinguished itself on the small screen, but it was mostly setting, defining the show’s universe.

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Utopia

The Netflix series Sense8 took a more interesting, if flawed route. Trying to untangle the universe created by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski is a little pointless—eight people around the globe begin to realize they’re somehow mentally/emotionally tethered, stuff happens, some nefarious people chase them—but how it all plays out is where it gets interesting. Built into the series’ film language is the fact that it’s going to switch subjective perspectives on the fly; that’s just a given. How it ends up doing that is often quite deft—the global “group sex” is episode six was probably the show’s most inspired moment—but also inconsistent. The show never quite gained any narrative momentum though it kept playing fast and loose with point of view. It was often thrilling to watch—it certainly helps that virtually every person in the cast is attractive (I perhaps unfairly quipped to a friend that it could’ve been subtitled “The United Colors of Donna Haraway)—but rarely satifying in its overall storytelling, and by the end this ambitious concept for a TV show started resprting to standard genre conventions. And it took forever—like, seven or eight episodes—just to get all its character pieces into place.

That said, Sense8 reached an operatic high point that few movies, much less TV shows, ever hit, and did it without uttering a word. At the end of episode 10 one of the characters goes to see her father perform at a symphony hall. What happens is that she, and by virtue of the whateverthehell psychic/mental/neural The Matrix connection, all seven people she’s connected to, experience the emotional roller coaster of their parents at the time of their own birth as if they’re watching a movie in their minds. Yes, it sounds incredibly corny, but with this sequence the show attempts a feat of emotional daring and absolutely sticks the landing.

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This sequence was the kind of visual storytelling that TV shows think they’re doing with those musical montages that often wrap up story arcs but which never put the work into making character arcs and visual language intertwine so effortlessly as it does here. By this point Sense8 had established a template for its fluid subjectivity shifts, so when this sequence transpires it compoliments both its plot and visual universe. Some of the shots in this sequence last but a few seconds, but they’re done with such exquisite attention. The remebrance of Mexican actor Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) of his family crowded around his mother and TV set has the dramatic complexity of a Gregory Crewdson photograph, and the sequence actually pulls off allowing a character crying a single tear not be a visual cliché.

Neither Utopia or Sense8, however, aim as high as Hannibal, which has created more stunning single frames than any program in recent memory, from flames engulfing a human face at the top of this post to a slow fade from passing countryside to snails that becomes a surreal transition, a reverse tracking shot impersonally watching a man bleed in which the drops of blood seem to be falling up into the sky, or using a woman’s profile reflected in a cleaver’s blade as a reaction shot. Bravo, Hannibal creative team. You made watching TV about an extremely cultured and well-educated cannibal the most sumptuous meal of the week.

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Please Note: All photos screengrabs I did on my computer, hence their inherit shittiness. I’m a word guy who appreciates the images, but me working with the images is inevitably an epic fail.

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