Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mutants, Zombies, and Cannibals: 2012-13 in Horror Television

*I had originally intended to publish this article last month, following the season finale of Hannibal, but never managed to finish it in time. On the eve of the Emmy nominations, to be announced tomorrow, it seems like as fitting a time as ever.*

I am not, by nature, a horror fan. I've written a little before about my queasy history with the genre; essentially, I flat-out refused to watch anything that could even be considered horror until I became a budding cinephile around the age of 13. In fact, the first horror film I can even remember sitting through all the way was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - Tobe Hooper's original - on VHS, and even that was just to impress a girl (it didn't work). After that I slowly eased my way in, but a vast number of "must-sees" remain unseen by me, and only recently have I really begun to tackle the genre and develop a better appreciation for it.

So to say that I've found myself impressed by some of the horror offerings on television this past season. Namely, in FX's American Horror Story: Asylum, AMC's The Walking Dead, and NBC's Hannibal. Each of these series utilized different approaches to their terror, and some were more successful than others. What's interesting, though, is that all three shows seem to be dialoging with the genre in ways that mainstream theatrical horror has not been in some time.

Let's start with Asylum. Created by Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, AHS is a truly unique program: it's essentially an anthology series (similar to The Twilight Zone), only instead of telling single-episode stories, the narrative is spread across the entire 13 episodes, with each season featuring a new story with essentially the same set of actors. The show's first season was only occasionally effective, set around a haunted house in Los Angeles and the family (and legion of spirits) that inhabit it (namely, when you pin your story on the back of Dylan McDermott, you get what you sign up for).

Asylum, however, is set exactly where it sounds: in a Church-run Massachusetts insane asylum in 1960s Massachusetts. Sister Jude (Jessica Lange, the series' MVP thus far) is forced to come to terms with her past, while Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) is possessed by the Devil himself. Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) may be an ex-Nazi, and is certainly conducting grotesque experiments on the inmates. Journalist Lana (Sarah Paulson) hopes to write an expose of the asylum, but ends up an inmate for her sexuality. Kit (Evan Peters) may or may not have murdered his wife, may or may not have been contacted by aliens, and may or may not be a killer named Bloody Face. And all of this is just in the first episode: the rest of the season sees Anne Frank visit the asylum, Zachary Quinto be a seemingly-compassionate psychiatrist, mutants, exorcisms, and more.

Which, ultimately, highlights Asylum's - and AHS as a whole - greatest strength and weakness. Both iterations of the show so far (the third, subtitled Coven, is due this fall) have relied heavily on the same wild tonal shifts and "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" approach that has been a hallmark of many of Murphy's shows. While this has been to the detriment of, say, Glee (which always needed a more balanced and nuanced approach - and I'm well aware I'm arguing for a "nuanced" approach to a musical, of all things), it works in this show's favor by establishing tension from the jarring shifts in tone and content. And ultimately, it's throwing together old horror tropes in a way that makes them feel new in the moment.

Of course, if you stop and think about what you're watching for more than a few seconds, it quickly falls apart: story beats that don't make sense, random scenes that do nothing to advance the story, completely arbitrary plotting. But what Asylum succeeds at better than the show's first season (has that one been retroactively subtitled yet?) is developing it's characterization, and basing some of the horror in its characters. This is especially true of Sister Jude and Lana; Lange and Paulson, respectively, turn in terrific performances, and as a result make the more terrifying twists they come across that much more effective. It's may not be good for you, but it is a singular experience to watch. Hopefully Coven will continue to improve this series.

While Asylum was popular for FX, it - and nothing else (scripted) on cable - pale in comparison to the phenomenon that The Walking Dead has become. This season, its third, has found the not-so-merry band of survivors led by Rick (Andrew Lincoln) taking refuge in an abandoned prison. While many - myself included - found this to be an improvement over season two's farm setting, this season did still highlight a number of the show's problems, especially in its languid pacing and shallow characterizations (not to mention its seeming inability to have more than one person of color on-screen at any given time). Though this isn't true of the full season: the season-opening "Seed" featured some of the best "show, don't tell" storytelling the show has done yet, and mid-season standout "Clear" was the best episode the show since the pilot. The addition of David Morissey as notorious villain The Governor certainly breathed some new life into the show as well, creating a more focused source of conflict for the show, though, as is all too common on this show, his performance is sometimes too over-the-top, and his characterization is too shallow.

TWD's greatest strength, though, comes from it's superb sense of dread. Things aren't entirely hopeless for this group - life does go on, after all - but at the same time, the show doesn't ignore the fact civilization as we know it no longer exists, and likely never will. Between all of the zombie-killing and constant arguing, there's the constant drone of the cicadas and crickets (any fellow Southerners know the sound well), the sound of a void left where society used to stand. It's a brave new world, and it's a world haunted by death in the most literal way. When these themes come to the surface - and they almost never do - they do so in an almost over-obvious way; the show functions best when those ideas linger in the subtext. This year was a marked improvement for the show - fan-favorite Norman Reedus continues to be the show's MVP - but it's still not free of it's fundamental issues that keep it from becoming a truly great show.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is a departure from these two shows in several ways. For one, it's on network television, not cable. It doesn't feature anything supernatural (though plenty of surreal). It is the lowest-rated of the three programs (it received a last-second renewal last month). And it's also the best of the three. For those not familiar, the series works as a sort-of origin story of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (brilliantly played here by Mads Mikkelsen), practicing psychiatrist, sophisticated foodie, serial-killing cannibal. He's cooperating with the FBI, namely agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who's grasp on reality is quickly slipping away from him.

The show comes from Bryan Fuller, who's other enterprises include the beloved Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me (as well as a stint with Heroes). Clearly, Fuller's shows often deal with death, but none have tackled it quite the way Hannibal does. In this show, there's no whimsy in death: it's gruesome, terrifying, and permanent. The show does an equally fantastic job of creating a very real fear of death, and not underplaying the gravity that every death has on Will and the others. This is, all told, a remarkable feat: being on network television, the real meat of the show - Will's mental state and his relationship with Dr. Lecter - is grafted onto what could've been an otherwise-standard procedural. However, it presents these characters as real people who are constantly exposed to all manner of horrors; you rarely see this kind of reflection on CSI or Criminal Minds.

Another remarkable feat, though, and a delicious source of the show's horror, is the way that the titular character is not the main character. The show is presents Will as our protagonist, and we're (mostly) told this story from his perspective, complete with his hallucinations and terrifying dreams (though the bluish washed-out cinematography, droning score, and sublime sound design certainly help add to the tension). Dr. Lecter, meanwhile, mostly operates from the sidelines, though it's made clear to us in the audience that he's pulling all the strings. The cat-and-mouse game between Will and Hannibal is a hallmark of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon (the source material), and here it's in its nascent stages, with Will still under Hannibal's spell. Dr. Lecter's convinced everyone that he's the most sane person in the room, and thanks to Mikkelsen's subtly terrific (and completely Emmy-worthy) performance, so do we, even though we know better. That's the most terrifying act of them all.

Season grades:

American Horror Story: Asylum: B+
The Walking Dead: B
Hannibal: A-

No comments: