We are in a Golden Age of television. Never before have there not only been so many options on television but also such quality material everywhere you turn. From network TV’s Nashville and Parenthood and Modern Family to cable’s The Walking Dead and Mad Men and The Americans to premium TV’s Homeland and Treme and The Newsroom, there are compelling stories out there with fleshed-out characters and a perfect balance of drama, humor, realism, and humanism to keep us tuning in every single week.
The 2012—2013 season was, in my opinion, another stellar one in a string of solid television series for the past several years. There were many surprises. The biggest surprises, however, came wrapped in the branding of “reimagining” and loaded with some very dark, heavy material. Those surprises were Bates Motel and Hannibal. Yes, the premises that people may have rolled their eyes at when the shows were in pre-production have worked brilliantly for television. Bates Motel and Hannibal are TV’s brightest stars right now. Here’s why:
•They are smart, focused, captivating, and nail-biting.
•The stories are complicated and intricate, which, for once in a long time, feels fresh. They command your viewership every week if you are going to truly be along for the ride. And the stories hang out comfortably right on the cusp of the frighteningly realistic and the ridiculously absurd. Take the sex trade story in Bates Motel, for example. What the hell does that have to do with the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother and how the hell is that supposed to contribute to why Norman lost his mind? But, in some way, it feels right for that show. It makes you realize that no one is who you think he/she is, which is kind of the premise of the show (a deep look inside a seemingly normal family). Or take the gruesome murders every week on Hannibal, for example. I know Baltimore is supposed to be dangerous and shit, but if crazy-ass murders like that happened every single week, that city would be a ghost town because nobody would want to live there! Yet, the investigations and the uncovered motives and the psychology of it all make you wonder if this kind of stuff happens more often than we hear about.
•They have taken two very old stories/concepts (one several decades old and one more than a half-century old) and somehow made them new and fresh and exciting all over again. Producers and writers get major credit for taking a leap of faith and setting the plots in modern times, even though Norman Bates would have been a teenager in the 1950’s and Hannibal Lecter would have been a practicing therapist at his height in the early 1980’s. The shows stick close enough to original source material to keep the loyalty of Psycho and Silence of the Lambs fans, but introduce new perspectives to hook in a whole new audience, a whole new generation of fans of these legendary psychopaths in pop culture.
•Moreover, producers have chosen a brilliant cast for both series. Vera Farmiga shines as Norma Bates, making you root for her and against her all at the very same time. She is funny, manipulative, caring, and dangerous all wrapped into one—and that makes her a very scary character. Freddie Highmore has come a long way from frolicking through fields trying to hear the music of his biological mom and dad in August Rush and portrays the young Norman Bates as a truly tragic figure. Norman is delicate, sensitive, and caring, but his overpowering and overprotective mother shelters him from growing into his own, and it’s made him lose grip on reality. Mads Mikelsen is spellbinding as Hannibal. He’s calm, confident, methodical, and cultured—just like Anthony Hopkins played him back in 1991. You honestly believe this is the same Hannibal Lecter—a younger version of the madmen that obsessed over Clarice Sterling—and what’s more…you like him! Mikelsen even gets the slight accent down perfectly! All of these performances, in my not-so-humble opinion, are worthy of Emmy nominations…at a minimum!
•These shows are sleek and stylish. Bates Motel incorporates a vintage feel, even though it’s supposed to occur in present day. The old cars, the vintage clothing Norma often dons, the décor of her house…all of it feels as if it could be the 1950’s or 1960’s. Hannibal looks beautifully clear and crisp. The dream sequences are shot so well, with whacky camera angles to complement the whacky dreams its characters have. The gruesome murder scenes are imaginatively staged, portraying almost works of art, as the show’s killers continuously strive for.
•Both are, at times, genuinely scary shows. They achieve what they’re meant to—send chills down audience members’ spines. Who did not cringe at the scene when Norma found the decayed dead body in her room? Or who did not have the hairs stand up when it was revealed what Norman did to his teacher? Whose jaw dropped hard and fast to the floor when you saw that Hannibal murder scene in which the orchestra player was left on stage with his throat slashed and a violin bow shoved into his mouth? Who hides behind a pillow during Will Graham’s dream sequences? These shows by far can truly be characterized as horror…and moreso than The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which are also great shows but rarely manage to tread into terrifying territory.
So, when the 2013—2014 television season debuts, be sure to add these shows to your DVR queue, if they aren’t already a part of it. I beg you. This is great TV. Yes, the material is dark and bleak, but I guarantee you, it shines far brighter than the lightest, most heartwarming material out there.