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Hannibal – Ceuf (Review)

Ceuf is somewhat overshadowed by the controversy it generated, an episode of Hannibal pulled from broadcast following several national tragedies (including the Boston bombings and the Newtown tragedy). In the wake of these two high-profile incidents, it was felt that broadcasting the full episode so close to the events would have been a bit much. This move naturally generated a host on on-line commentary with various people adopting various positions on the topic of whether or not Bryan Fuller was right to pull the show from the air. In a way, Ceuf is far more interesting for what it ended up being than as a chapter of Hannibal.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

I’ll confess to a curiousity about how the American media reacts to national tragedies like this. Perhaps a part of this is the fact that I find it very hard to blame anybody except the organisers and perpetrators of violence for violent acts. I have no difficulty believing that those sick individuals responsible for those atrocities are entirely to blame for their own actions (whether or not they can be held legally accountable is another matter), and I’m very uncomfortable with the assertion that their conduct can somehow be attributed to society as whole, or the media we consume.

After all, the rest of the western world consumes a large amount of American media. One would assume that if movies or television were to blame these acts of violence would be just as common in Canada or Europe. I tend to see attempts to involve media in this debate as a bit of a red herring, providing a convenient scapegoat. It’s also a handy justification for political posturing, and an excuse to condemn media that simply isn’t as popular or well-regarded by certain corners of society. After all, Shakespeare could be as violent as Tarantino, and yet there’s never been a serious attempt to pull Macbeth from school curriculums after events like these.

We all carry scars...

We all carry scars…

Of course, nobody forced Bryan Fuller or NBC to pull Ceuf. Based on Fuller’s heartfelt statement, it’s hard to dismiss his concern as anything but genuine. However, it’s also very difficult not to read the decision to pull Ceuf as a mea culpa from Fuller and NBC, a silent admission that maybe some of their shows aren’t entirely appropriate. It’s hard for this to seem anything but a concession, one that no other industry makes. Gun shops do not shut their doors in sympathy after a national fire-arm tragedy, after all.

To be fair, the argument that the show might offend victims or relatives of victims is understandable, but doesn’t hold water. In this era of time-shifted viewing, particularly for a show like Hannibal where a lot of the viewing figures come from a time-shifted audience, it seems unconvincing. It’s more than possible that victims or relatives of victims might be uncomfortable watching the show in the immediate wake of the tragedy, but it’s possible for people to watch it if and when they can. This is the viewer’s choice, not that of the network.

Psycho psychiatrist...

Psycho psychiatrist…

And the decision to air the episode in other markets, and to release it on the DVD and blu ray versions of the show, concedes that point. People are smart enough to choose what they want to watch. It’s not the role of media companies to make this decision for the viewer. After all, the very basis of network television is that the viewer chooses what they want to watch, just as the network chooses what to show. Not airing Ceuf says a lot more about NBC than it does about the feelings of the audience, and it sends precisely the wrong message.

Even outside of the tragedies and the circumstances of its non-airing, Ceuf is still intriguing for reasons beyond its plot or characters. In a way, it’s an interesting exploration of how modern television story-telling works. Although Ceuf is, at least on the surface, a “serial killer of the week” show in the style of Amuse-Boche, it’s still essential viewing. So essential that NBC placed an edited version of the episode on their website, cutting out all references to the crimes of the week.

I wonder what he's cooking up...

I wonder what he’s cooking up…

We live in an era where – even in a relatively episodic story – there are still elements so vital to the over-arching story that you cannot cut an episode from a season. If you look back to American television even a decade ago, that sort of storytelling would not have been in place on the networks. Even the most arc-based of the network shows – like, say, the late seasons of The X-Files – could easily lose an episode or two from their season without anybody noticing.

In the wake of Columbine, for example, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was able to delay two episodes from its third season. One of these was the finalé, Graduation Day. To be fair, while that is pretty essential to long-term storytelling, pushing the last episode of the season out by a month doesn’t affect storytelling. However, moving Earshot out to the end of the season and out of the production order didn’t leave too noticeable a scar in the show’s third year.

Don't know Jack...

Don’t know Jack…

Ceuf is not necessarily essential to the on-going story-arc in Hannibal, but there is still enough here of value that the network felt the need to make it available in some form to viewers. It couldn’t be entirely skipped over or pushed out, as its absence would create a void in the show’s first year. While Hannibal isn’t the most arc-based show on television at the moment, and while Ceuf is still relatively episodic, it shows just how far the model of network television has shifted from the “pick ‘n’ mix” episodic approach to an “everything is essential” model of serialisation.

Even the loss of the scenes in Ceuf focusing on the serial killer of the week means that the edited down version of the episode can’t possibly cover all the necessary character ground. I remarked in Amuse-Boche that the last thing American television needs is another police procedural, and I am disappointed that we have “a case of the week” formula at work here. At the same time, Ceuf off-sets these concerns by making the serial killer plot somewhat secondary to main character arcs and allowing it to reflect themes and ideas more relevant to our regular cast than any of the guest stars.

Mommy's very angry...

Mommy’s very angry…

At the same time, it’s still frustrating – particularly because Molly Shannon’s psychotic guest star never really gets a chance to develop and shine. She just feels like background material. It is the best of the two possible approaches to the episode – I prefer the serial killer stuffed in the background as opposed to taking over – but it still suggests that Hannibal really should try to avoid turning into a show which relies on these sorts of weekly threats.

The character work in Ceuf is fascinating, and it’s strong enough to sustain the episode. I like the effort the show is investing in Will Graham to keep him from losing too much ground to the main attraction – although his presence in the edited episode is greatly diminished because of his interaction with case. Little exchanges about Will’s place in his family, and his own experiences as a child of a family pretending to be something they aren’t, add a great deal to his character.

A dogged serial killer...

A dogged serial killer…

I like the acknowledgement of Thomas Harris’ original version of Will Graham, as the special agent confesses his dream to Lecter. Recalling his future semi-retirement in Red Dragon on the Florida quays, it’s not surprising to discover that he dreams of a house that is also a boat. “It’s really the only time I feel safe,” he admits, before recalling how his father used to work on boat yards. It’s a potent and effective metaphor (Lecter even gets in the act, advising Crawford that Graham needs an “anchor”), and it’s easy to see why the boat might appeal to Will.

It’s a small character touch which acknowledges the roots of the show. It’s nice to see Harris’ Red Dragon getting some love and affection, as it often overshadowed by Silence of the Lambs. Indeed, even this show seems to lean quite heavily on the iconography and the imagery of that film – it’s even advertised with tag line “before the silence.” Will is developing into quite a compelling and fascinating character, and Hugh Dancy is doing great work.

Don't lose sleep over it...

Don’t lose sleep over it…

I particularly like the suggestion that Graham’s empathy with the serial killers runs a lot deeper than he might like to think. “I know who I am, Doctor Lecter,” he assures the psychiatrist. However, Lecter later points out that Will Graham’s fascination with fishing might be seen as something of a mirror for Garret Hobbs’ affection for hunting. When Graham buys Abigail some fishing material, Lecter rather pointedly asks, “Teaching her how to fish? Her father taught her how to hunt.”

Of course, despite the fact that the show is supposedly only based on Red Dragon, the references to the other Hannibal stories seem to creep in around the edges. I’m quite impressed at how unobtrusive and how subtle they are. Hannibal’s decision to dope up young Abigail before serving her a meal (with her new “chosen” family) recalls the rather icky ending to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, where Lecter keeps another woman doped up and well fed as a means of creating his own surrogate family.

Shakin' it up...

Shakin’ it up…

When Graham quizzes Lecter on his own family, Hannibal doesn’t mention anything about any siblings. It’s quite possible Fuller will be steering away from that particular plot development, given how controversial Harris’ explanation of Lecter’s origin has been. However, if he isn’t, the scene with Abigail makes some fascinating foreshadowing. Is Lecter building a replacement family? if so, who is he replacing? Even outside of the possible tip-of-the-hat to Harris’ Hannibal, it’s still an intriguing sequence.

Mikkelsen continues to be absolutely fascinating as Lecter, and the show is still teasing exactly what the good doctor might be up to. There’s something delightfully deadpan in Mikkelsen’s reading of teasing lines, as he admonishes Jack Crawford, “You promised to deliver your wife to my table.” The episode seems to suggest that he has been serving the FBI agent human flesh, but there’s still a great deal we don’t necessarily know about Hannibal Lecter. Which, to be fair, is for the best. The show is managing to balance mystery and menace quite well for the moment.

A very messy, very blood business...

A very messy, very blood business…

That said, something about Ceuf feels a little too much like the show is entering a holding pattern. Potage managed to advance the plot without feeling too much like it was walking in circles, while a bit of Ceuf feels like a distraction. Although it’s nice the serial killer plot thematically mirrors the on-going plot line, it does feel like a distraction – something offered up by the audience so that the meaty storyline involving Hannibal and Abigail doesn’t advance too far or too fast.

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