Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reviews - Bates Motel and Hannibal

Psychopaths seems to be trending on TV these days, with two of the most iconic cinematic figures - Norman Bates (Psycho) and Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon) - headlining their own dramas: Bates Motel (A&E) and Hannibal (NBC), respectively.

So are they both worth watching?

Bates Motel is a pseudo-origin story, taking us back to when Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland) was a shy, awkward teenager living with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air), a seemingly hopeful, impulsive woman with definite control issues, especially concerning her son, who she rules with a stringent, passive-aggressive thumb ... all which serves to set up events that lead to the Norman we came to know in Alfred Hitchcock's masterful thriller Psycho.


The pilot episode sets up how the Bateses came to live at their infamous hotel following the death of Norman's father - circumstances of which aren't revealed, though Norma's far-less-than-devastated reaction and quick departure is rather telling.  Apparently Norma has moved the twosome around quite a lot, always looking for a fresh start, but since we know this current residence is the one that sticks, whatever happens from here on out happens here. 

The show is definitely capitalizing on the intense, far-beyond-co-dependent relationship we know existed between mother and son.  While incest is not implied, I don't think it's entirely ruled out in the future (I don't recall if such was ever established in the film series).  But these two are close ... VERY close.  Norma clearly wants her precious baby boy all to herself, especially when girls come calling, and goes to great length to tie Norman to her solidly thorugh guilt and self-deprication:

Norma:  "I suck. People suck.  Everyone I've ever known has sucked, except you.  You're too good for me.  I'm the worst mother in the world.  You deserve so much better.  When you were born, it was like God gave me a second chance and all I ever wanted was for life to be beautiful for you and look at it.  Look at what your life has been.  What good am I doing you?"

Norman:  "Mom, you're everything.  Everything to me.  And I don't ever want to live in a world without you.  You're my family.  My whole family, my whole life, my whole self.  You always have been.  It's like there's a cord between our hearts."

Aw, sweet, huh?  Sure, it would be if the two weren't saying these things to each other while in the process of dumping the body of the man  - Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown, Deadwood) - Norma killed in their kitchen.  Yup, had to be murder somewhere in this story, right?  Granted, he did threaten them (he was the prior property owner but the bank forclosed on him, so he was naturally upset), and he did break in, attack and rape her, so it was technically self-defense.  Of course, Norma killed him (stabbed him repeatedly, to be specific) after he'd already been subdued and restrained, so what does that say about her?  Norma doesn't want any of these events to be made public and to have the whole town know, so she opts for Plan B:  cover it all up.  Clearly a pro at compartmentalizing, she quickly instructs Norman on how to dispose of the body and surrounding evidence and maintain a level of innocence and denial when the cops come calling.

Guess we know now where he learned it from, huh?  Not that he doesn't have natural tendencies of his own: when he finds a notebook full of sketches of women tied up, gagged, being tortured and sexually assaulted, it spurs him to start envisioning doing the same to certain women in his life.  Looks like the boy has it in him all on his own ...

Elements that are sure to cause problems for the Bateses ongoing are the local sheriff (Nestor Carbonell, Lost, Ringer), who has suspicions about the duo right from the jump (a little too quickly for me); and the addition of another son, Dylan (Max Thieriot, Nancy Drew), Norman's half-brother who Norma had when she was 17 and with whom she has a very strained, tempestuous relationship (he calls her Norma, much to her chagrin, and labels her as "whore" in his phone ID).   This is an odd plot choice for me - not sure why the creators opted to add a sibling, but I guess they have their reasons.

The only other thing not quite working for me in this show is that it's taking place today, so there are items like smart phones.  To see Norman texting is just ... odd.  On the one hand we have the original motel and house featured in the original 1960 film (shooting on Universal lot, I wonder?), the family car is an old-model Mercedes, but then we have modern devices like iPhones.  Combining the old with the new is just a little weird for me.

I've seen the first three episodes, and I know a lot that has to happen to make this a full, ongoing series. It can't just be about Norman and his mother ... other characters and plotlines have to be weaved in to their story.  But it's well done enough so far, and I think Farmiga and Highmore portray their respective characters well - the latter does have moments of definite creepiness and yeah-I-can-see-future-Norman Bates-we-all-know-and-fear in him.  I'm not completely hooked,, though, so I may give it another ep or two to see if I'll "check in" for the long haul.

Hannibal is a much more instantly gripping, compelling show that, despite featuring what has become a current trend - eccentric geniuses that can can pinpoint unseen evidence and envision and solve crimes in uniquely brilliant ways, like in the terrific CBS series Elementary (with which it's going head-to-head on Thursdays) and less so in TNT's Perception - stands on it own as a terrific great new drama.

That's saying something considering the story's cinematic pedigree.  I mean, we're talking about one of the most infamously evil movie characters of all time: Hannibal Lecter.  This is certainly not our first introduction to him.  Most renowned would be Anthony Hopkins' portrayal in The Silence of the Lambs, which also featured the character of FBI chief Jack Crawford, played  by Scott Glenn.  The film Manhunter and its remake Red Dragon focused on special agent Will Graham, played by William Petersen and Edward Norton, respectively. 


Hannibal is centering around these three key characters:  Graham is played by Hugh Dancy (The Big C); Lecter by Mads Mikkelsen (Clash of the Titans); and Crawford by Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix).  The story is taking place long before Lecter was caught and locked behind plated glass and denied his usual ... menu.  Here he is actually a consultant, a psychological expert brought in to help Graham and Crawford catch serial killers. The irony is of course, that Lecter is one himself, twistedly operating his own crimes right under their noses.  How much will he be working at cross-purposes - seemingly helping to catch murderers, seeming to care for the victims while continuing to take ... and dine ... on his own?

Unlike previous incarnations, Dancy's Graham is not entirely stable:  on the behavioral spectrum he "hitches his horse to a post that is closer to Aspergers and autistics" but, as Crawford points out, can empathize with narcissists and sociopaths, which gives him an invaluable point of view in profiling crimes.  The fact that he can re-enact murders in his mind as if he himself were the killer (which is done very disturbingly and stylistically, with images that are clearly pushing the violence envelope for a major network like NBC ... think a less-graphic American Horror Story), makes him a uniquely qualified expert ... one Crawford wants to capitalize on, even if it means forcing the socially awkward Graham right out of his comfort zone (the man gets along with dogs far better than people).

Mikkelsen's Lecter is as the others: intelligent, reserved, civilized, unassuming.  The actor is Danish and his accent for me is a little distracting.  I much prefer Hopkins' velvet British voice.  But unlike the other actors, he has more to overcome to be memorable in the role.  Admittedly I don't even remember Brian Cox as Lecter in Manhunter (sorry, sir) and was glad Hopkins was brought in for Red Dragon (though he was older than he was supposedly portraying - a stretch).  His is the one true Lecter for me.  Fishburne is his usual powerful presence, and his Crawford is pretty on par with Glenn's. 

What's so ... delicious .. about this series is waiting and watching to see the relationship develop between Graham and Lecter.  The good doctor is a master at getting into people's heads, and Graham's seems like such an easy target, his eccentricities making him seem ripe for the picking.  As it says in one promo, "the closer he gets,  the further his mind goes."  Could he become that which he seeks?  But I think that's going to be the twist - maybe it's the very reason Lecter won't get in.  But what a fascinating dance it's poised to be! 

Not to mention that Gillian Anderson - yes, Scully! - is coming up in future episodes! Been a while since we've seen her.  And she's playing Hannibal's shrink ... how cool is that?!

Bottom Line:     

Bates Motel - Check in for a look and decide for yourself if it's for you.
Hannibal - I'm hungry for more!  Make a reservation to get on board with this series.

Bates Motel airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.  Hannibal airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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