I’m very fond of Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who set a new standard for Bond villains in Casino Royale. So I was initially pleased to hear that he’d been cast as Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s drama adaptation of the classic serial killer story, a procedural that will follow Hannibal as he develops a productive working relationship with an FBI agent. But after watching The Following, I have some mixed feelings. I’m not normally a prude, but I wonder if this fall will be the season when network television steps over my personal line and starts depicting violence I find uncomfortable to the point of unwatchability.
It’s not as if network television isn’t quite violent, often in a way that’s desensitizing. Law & Order: Criminal Intent has always reveled in retelling baroque and frightening murders, while Special Victims Unit’s churning out episode after episode of sex crimes. I love Bones, Fox’s procedural about forensic anthropologists, but the show tackles cases where things happen to people that are so dreadful that they turn from people into abstractions — they’re barely bodies anymore, but cuts of meat.
Even those shows, though, generally shy away from showing the commission of the gruesome violence they explore. If Bones is chasing a serial killer who dissects human bodies, we see the clean bones he leaves behind, not the dissecting process. The Law & Order franchise will show the moments leading up to a crime, but shies away from the actual commission, returning to the discovery of a body by civilians or its initial examinations by detectives. These shows may not always successfully grapple with victims as human, but they don’t aestheticize the acts that rob the humanity from our bodies.
Obviously the pilot may change before it gets on the air, but I found The Following, Fox’s midseason drama about an FBI agent and a serial killer, starring Kevin Bacon, jarring in its depiction of disturbing violence committed by individuals against individuals not as part of a conflict up close, and I say this as someone who watches Game of Thrones. But where in that show, violence is an organic part of the plot, in The Following, violence is the point and the plot.
And for the show to work, we need to at least respect the cleverness of the serial killer. In Hannibal, the serial killer in question will be half of a crime-solving partnership. Maybe this is the logical extension of our decade in the company of anti-heroes. But I’m not sure it’s a place I’m interested in going.