Television networks are not necessarily known for originality. That’s why with every new season, they’re bound to give us a few shows that are similar in nature. The current subject du jour seems to be serial killers and/or cults.
First out of the gate was Fox’s The Following, then The CW’s Cult and now NBC’s Hannibal. (There’s also Bates Motel, but counting it depends upon whether or not you consider A&E to be a real network. I don’t.)
The Following debuted on January 21, starring Kevin Bacon as alcoholic FBI agent Ryan Hardy, who is hunting serial killer Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy. Since Carroll started the series in prison, it looked like The Following was going to be a rip-off of Silence of the Lambs. But eleven episodes in, there have been enough twists and turns to vanquish that notion.
Cult debuted on February 19, starring Matt Davis as tarnished reporter Jeff Sefton, hunting for missing brother, Nate, played by James Pizzinato. Since the real-life cult in the series revolved around a fictional TV show called Cult, it looked like Cult was going to be a clever, meta-show-within-a-show. But six episodes in, there hasn’t been enough creativity to support that notion.
If you recall, I saw the pilot of Cult at Comic-Con last year and loved it. However, when The Following received an earlier premiere date, I knew it would be seen as the copycat. Sure enough, it was immediately banished to a Friday night timeslot where, I assume, it would be allowed to burn off its remaining episodes. That’s all right with me; it never lived up to its promise.
On the other hand, The Following has become a huge hit. It plays like 24 except that this FBI squad never catches a break like CTU would (at least occasionally) in its eight seasons on the air. The show takes great measures to explain why now-escaped Joe Carroll and his cult of followers are always one step ahead. But in doing so, it makes the FBI look like the Keystone Cops. Luckily, it’s so darned thrilling week after week.
I particularly liked the subplot of two men portraying gay neighbors to help kidnap Carroll’s son. Once their gig was up, they became involved in a steamy, three-way affair with the girl calling all the shots. It ended in heartbreak, but for several episodes, you never knew what to expect. Cult has no such juicy subplots; heck, even its main story is uninvolving and repetitive. It’s an example of one show doing soap opera well and one squandering the opportunities.
Hannibal debuted on April 4, starring Hugh Dancy as criminal profiler Will Graham, hunting serial killers with the help of psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelson. Since the story had been done before (multiple times), it looked like Hannibal was going to be irrelevant. But one episode in, it looks like it may actually be the best show of the bunch.
I find the concept of Hannibal ever more suspect than that of a prolonged prequel to Psycho featuring a young Norman Bates. However, by introducing a character who is perhaps more interesting than Lecter himself, it manages to feel fresh. Dancy’s Graham is a savant, unable to comfortably look people in the eyes, but able to easily place himself in the shoes of a killer. The visual process by which we see him do this is something interesting and new.
Hannibal is definitely the smartest of the serial killer and/or cult shows now on network TV. It’s the one you have to pay attention to the most, but it’s also the one that promises the most surprises. I’m quite eager to see where it goes next week. There’s always the danger that the point of view will shift, but even if it does, I’m willing to give Mikkelsen’s Lecter a chance. He at the same time very different from Anthony Hopkins, yet also perfectly cast, if that is even possible.
I write as if these shows are in and of themselves similar. But not only do the networks borrow ideas within a television season, they also look to previous seasons. Hence, you may recognize elements of earlier successes such as Criminal Minds. (Hannibal even threatens to encroach on territory already explored in Dexter.) Therefore, these shows may all feel the same. About all we can hope for is one unique idea within a familiar structure.
The Following (Episodes 1-11) = 3.5 (out of 5)
Cult (Episodes 1-6) = 2.5 (out of 5)
Hannibal (Pilot) = 4.5 (out of 5)