Though I obviously wield and write from a position of considerable (imaginary) power with this blog, I’m not typically in the business of assigning pop culture homework to my readership, or at least when I do, it’s well-considered. If, by this point in our relationship, you’ve stubbornly discounted my delightfully subtle recommendations, and are not, for example, either already caught up with FX’s The Americans, well into the process of doing so, or at least in strong consideration of taking that plunge (seriously, it’s thirty-six episodes…that’s not even a long weekend!), then I have probably reached the limits of what I can do for you. I feel, however, that it’s time to offer a rare exception in the case of two extraordinary, macabre police procedurals – one just ending its first season as the other begins its third – that glide below the radar of most viewers and settle (or unsettle, as the case may be) comfortably into some of the darkest corners of the television landscape, two radically dissimilar shows that are nevertheless so smart, unpredictable, and well-made that they have engendered fierce praise and support that belies their anemic ratings. In the Twitter age, passion can matter just as much as raw numbers, and the CW’s sleeper hit iZombie first rewarded fans with the news of its second season then scoured its status quo down to the bone in a devastating first season finale. NBC’s Hannibal, by comparison, already knows and has demonstrated a thing or two about harrowing climaxes and their awful aftermaths. Season three begins with the good doctor on the prowl in Italy as the carnage he inflicted Stateside heals glacially and unevenly, when at all.
I really can’t recommend these two shows enough, so much, in fact, that I hereby command anyone with an affinity for mordant, ghoulish drama and/or grim but gorgeous art to decamp to Hulu Plus or their local DVD store immediately. Furthermore, I’m taking the extraordinary step of recommending the tabling of reading this post until fully caught up. The two episodes under discussion make it ridiculously difficult to adhere to my normally spoiler-averse ways. I can wait, I promise. These shows are both worth the investment, and, between them, there’s so much for a hungry viewer to chew on.
iZombie – “Blaine’s World” – Season 1, Ep. 13 (CW) SPOILERS
I’ve entertained thoughts of delving into the saucy brain salad that is Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero’s adaptation of the celebrated Vertigo comic iZombie after almost every one of its inaugural season’s thirteen episodes. Some logistical conflict or other always held me back. Now that it’s officially a “now or never” situation, I have to applaud the show for turning in such a tense, amazing, inherently interesting finale to work with. This show, helmed, as mentioned above, by the creator and producer of beloved high school detective series Veronica Mars, has an awful lot of surface similarities to the old school CW standout: A plucky, independent, highly capable female protagonist solves crimes each week wielding a mix of smarts and sarcasm, while navigating social pressures and, unwittingly at first, uncovering a greater, overarching conspiracy at work in her world. The differences, of course, are what set the shows apart, and though iZombie’s premise – rather than a teenaged gumshoe, Olivia “Liv” Moore is a promising young medical resident, blissfully engaged, who, after a close encounter with the undead at a boat party leaves her a full-blown zombie with a hunger for human brains, applies for a job in the city morgue, from which she uses the memories and personalities of homicide victims, gained as a byproduct of her new eating habits, to help the Seattle PD solve their murders – seems prohibitively dark, its early days also provided enough quirk and spunk to win over fence-sitting potential converts. In truth, it verged on quirk overload. Though I’d eventually come to enjoy the Creepshow-style comic panel transitions to real action, complete with punny subtitles, they grated on me initially. How’s about giving our girl her own personality first, before she begins absorbing and acting out those of an extreme athlete, a snotty punk rocker, or an expectant mother? So the zombie’s last name is Moore and her nickname is “Liv”? Check please. The Mars pedigree got me watching from the beginning, however, sight unseen, and I immediately recognized that there was the germ of a real idea here, not just a silly gimmick, and the potential for truly intense conflict of a type and a threat level that Veronica never quite had to endure.
“Blaine’s World” is such a gut punch in the end because it neatly and thoroughly subverts (and then fatally wounds) almost all of the character-based truths the season invested any time in setting up. Liv (the diverse and fetching Rose McIver, in what will probably grow into her signature role), having lost her official humanity to a scratch by the nefarious zombie/brain-trafficker Blaine (TV vet David Anders, best known for Alias and Heroes, but here doing a deadly charismatic, more than passable riff on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike), having sacrificed her impending marriage rather than force herself on a human fiancée, having watched said fiancée (Major, played with a winning mixture of tenderness, tenacity, and backbone by Robert Buckley) become an unwitting but dedicated zombie hunter in his zeal to solve the spate of homeless murders that power Blaine’s custom meat business, and having had her chance at happiness disappear when the fellow zombie she’d fallen for tried to kill Blaine but failed, begins the episode in a dire headspace. She and her partner, Seattle detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin, level-headed and dependably bemused), dig deeper into their investigation of energy drink Max Rager’s possible culpability in the zombie outbreak, while Major, having stolen a lucrative cache of astronaut brains and hidden them at Liv’s house, is being held by Blaine in a sub-zero meat locker. Meanwhile, Liv, having recently driven away her roommate with a violent reaction to a home invasion, openly despairs of being a zombie and implores her colleague Ravi (the warm, winning Rahul Kohli) to allow her to take the cure he’s synthesized from experiments on rats. Ravi sees the big picture and tells her he only has enough antidote for a maximum two doses, and no easy way to create more. Liv and Blaine are far from being Seattle’s only zombies. The moral thing to do would be to wait until everyone could be cured, or no one at all.
It sounds strange for a show in which the protagonist is an undead homicide consultant seemingly walking her every step through a perpetual swirl of personal drama, but Thomas and Ruggerio’s well-established penchant for snark and winkery, honed to a diamond finish in their work on Veronica Mars, actually conspired with the just-clever-enough case of the week format to produce, in iZombie’s humble beginnings anyway, a show with precious little to offer in the way of stakes. Slowly but surely, the original posturing was revealed as just that, and the show began taking increasingly confident steps in an altogether more interesting direction, while never losing its underlying sense of fun. “Blaine’s World” deftly delivers on all the promise that has lain gestating for weeks now. Major’s escape from captivity is an adrenaline rush on a level neither the show, nor, one assumes, Max Rager clinical trials, has approached previously. Liv’s inevitable introduction into the carnage at exactly the wrong time, two doses of antidote in hand, complicates immensely what was already a fairly compelling Northwestern stand-off between the living and the undead, with Blaine, who can’t be easily killed, wounded but merely immobilized, and Major, who most assuredly can, left dying in the arms of the woman who still loves him. One spiteful injection cures Blaine for his troubles, which shift on a dime from merely annoying to life-threatening, but how can she cure Major of death? One mournful scratch and a restless night later, the two former lovers are again in bed together, but as far apart as ever. Liv is crushed not so much by the philosophical implications of what she’s done but by her beloved’s accusations. “Do you know what I could really go for right now?” he asks her. “Brains. Human brains.” Rather than sentence him to live in her daily purgatory, Liv gives him the remaining antidote, and, just like that, the cure for zombie-ism goes up in smoke as well. Liv and Major’s ongoing détente becomes a prospective season two storyline infinitely more intriguing than the “will they/won’t they/should they/can they?” dance of the season’s first two thirds. Ravi’s renewed vigor to find a cure figures in mightily as well, as do the next moves of Blaine, last seen being sewn up in a vet’s office while ravenously devouring a cheeseburger, which can either quell the zombie apocalypse or accelerate it into complete chaos.
And the final needle prick in Liv’s only occasionally beating heart, as her little brother lies in hospital, victim of an explosion she inadvertently enabled and in desperate need of a blood transfusion she could most easily supply, is a bleak but sublime note to end on, as she meets her mother’s unbelieving pleas with a simple, shattering, “no”, and sadly walks away.
I told you there’d be spoilers.
Hannibal – “Primavera” – Season 3, Ep. 2 (NBC) SPOILERS
It must be utter hell to be Will Graham. The FBI adjunct profiler/savant (played by British actor Hugh Dancy in a quivering, multi-faceted performance that is the closest we’ll probably ever come to a 360-degree portrait of an exposed nerve) went from a cushy teaching job at Quantico to a gig crawling inside the minds of a procession of the most twisted killers to ever sniff broadcast TV, slowly, gruelingly losing his sanity in the process. Ingeniously, if somewhat convolutedly, framed and imprisoned for the crimes of his imperious psychiatrist, the legendary gourmand and fixture of Baltimore high society Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, steely cold, effortlessly controlled, and devilish), Graham, in the end, proved almost as devious, capable, and, shockingly, susceptible to the lure of evil impulses as his mentor. After his exoneration and release, the dance of death the two engaged in during the back half of season two was as much a veiled courtship as it was a referendum of the deteriorating state of Graham’s soul, and never, ever less than fascinating. Lecter felt his relationship with the only other person he truly valued as an equal* deepening in intoxicating and unexpected directions even as Graham, with assistance from FBI Behavioral Science kingpin Jack Crawford (a truly never better Laurence Fishburne) sought to tighten the figurative noose around his neck. Alerted to the possibility of a trap by his own preternatural instincts, a betrayed Lecter answered Graham’s metaphorical rope with an actual knife, and, at high tide of the devastating social gathering that Hannibal fans have cheekily taken to calling “The Red Dinner”, leaves him gutted and near death. The finale saw Graham seemingly the last survivor in house almost literally overflowing with death, clutching the freshly cut neck of Abigail Hobbs – one of Lecter’s numerous chess pieces reintroduced to twist the metaphorical knife in the moments just Lecter could apply the real one – as the doctor spirited off to Europe with another thrall at his side, this time his own terrified, but apparently complicit, former psychiatrist Bedelia DuMaurier (a taut but visibly fraying Gillian Anderson).
*In the season three premiere, the prolonged, Lecter-engineered demise of Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) is referred to in illuminating flashbacks. At one point, Gideon, himself a convicted killer of questionable sanity, who is, under Lecter’s care, being force fed sumptuous meals comprised largely of his own amputated limbs, protests that his fate should be decided by a cannibal. Lecter summarily rejects the label, replying, with chilling evenness, “It’s only cannibalism if you’re peers.” Gideon is beneath him, as is everyone, but pigs, if properly prepared, can still make for a delicious dinner.
The season three premiere, “Antipasto” (for this season’s menu is, appropriately, Italian), took the bold tact, following over a year of breathless speculation, of withholding any news of the aftermath of “The Red Dinner” in favor of an entire episode devoted to the newly continental Hannibal assuming the identity and lecturing job of a slain college professor and setting up housekeeping in Palermo with DuMaurier as his fake wife. More than ever, Lecter seemed in his element, even using the occasion of the murder-in-progress of an unlucky French drifter in their apartment as a teaching moment during which to press Bedelia on the difference between observation and active participation. “Primavera”, which reintroduces Will Graham into the equation, and, surprisingly, Abigail Hobbs as well, is an altogether more abstract and dreamlike affair, often to a distracting degree. Graham awakens in a hospital bed, his compromised guts reconfigured and taped up, his head awash with not just questions but sneaky hallucinations in various states of flower, more consumed by thoughts of Hannibal than ever. Lecter’s public unveiling of the drifter’s body in an Italian cathedral, carved up and contorted to such extreme degrees that, as presented, it resembles a giant human heart, smacks intentionally of the lurid staged crime scenes left during his time as “The Chesapeake Ripper” and draws Graham to Italy in pursuit like a moth to flame. In Palermo, Graham encounters seedy, mistrustful Italian detective Rinaldo Pazzi (the show’s European Vacation has already drawn him, among other elements, from Lecter’s post-Lambs sojourns, which were detailed in the Thomas Harris novel and accompanying 2001 movie Hannibal) who is similarly obsessed with memories of Lecter stretching back two decades, when, then plying his trade in Florence, he arranged his murder victims in gruesome tableaus meant to evoke Botticelli paintings and was known as “Il Mostro”.
Graham, presumably skating on his residual FBI cred, haunts the still active crime scene with an elliptical Abigail in tow and Pazzi popping in occasionally to ask loaded questions and make veiled accusations. It all adds up to a strangely stagnant hour, and a comparatively disappointing one, for a show usually so consumed with exquisite evocation of blood-curdling mood and plumbing the depths of its principals’ labyrinthine psyches. Showrunner Bryan Fuller’s usually unerring instincts backfire on him here slightly, resulting in some stilted, fragmented, non-sequitur dialogue passages between Graham and Pazzi, or, especially, Hobbs, that carry the appearance of profundity rather than the genuine article he so often engages in with Lecter, or presumed “Red Dinner” victims Crawford and Dr. Alana Bloom. Fuller’s humorous, recently recounted instructions to first time series directors to, “make a pretentious art film” are in full play here, resulting in not only more gorgeously-rendered slow motion shots of dripping blood than normal but numerous moments where Graham’s perceptions of reality seemingly jump the rails at the slightest curve, for no discernable reason. Graham and Pazzi venture into the catacombs beneath the cathedral and continue to spar, while a painful truth about Abigail comes to light, although Will is so single-minded in his search for Hannibal – whom he “forgives” and, of course, it turns out has been watching him all along – that it hardly registers. Who knows exactly what we’re meant to feel about Graham’s vision quest, to say nothing of how he might feel about it. Will Graham, as ever, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Fuller’s commitment to his long game is admirable, and two seasons’ worth of amazing television has taught me to trust his instincts. If we’re being set up for a cerebral shell game between the two of the caliber the second half of season two so regularly delivered, only to segue later into Fuller’s rendition of the celebrated, foundational, fairly operatic Harris novel Red Dragon, then season three of Hannibal is going to be remarkable indeed. This week, however, it’s mostly a lot of frustrating fumbling around in the dark.