Lazy Writing: Show, don’t Tell

The new Hannibal show has now been on for three weeks, three episodes.  Three’s enough, I think.  What conclusions can we draw?

Lawrence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford is not the sardonic and skilled investigator of the novels.  He stands around wearing nice suits and making obstructing demands.  He’s something of a boor.

The sound effects (I hesitate to call them ‘music’) intrusively establish mood by being unsettling and jarring.  Unfortunately the scenes in which they are featured can’t carry the emotions themselves.

Freddy Lounds is a woman.  Which is not in itself remarkable, but given that the novel’s character is a man one has to wonder why.  Perhaps there was a perceived dearth of females on the prospective cast.

So what is the show like?  Let’s take a look at the first episode.

It starts at the scene of a bloody crime.  One investigator slowly eliminates the distractions from his mind’s eye and runs events backwards, ending standing across the street looking at the home.  Then he commits the crime, breaking down the front door, while his voices narrates over events.

He shoots a man twice in the neck, telling us that he’s severed both carotid and juglar with “almost surgical precision,” that the victim will watch as everything is taken from him and that this is the killer’s design.

(What?  What?!)

Next, he comes up behind a woman sobbing as she desperately scrabbles at a home security control box and shoots her in the neck.  We’re told that the major blood vessels were intentionally missed and the spinal cord hit, supposedly leaving the woman paralyzed but “still able to feel pain.”

(What?!  What?!!)

Y’know, maybe these statements make some degree of sense.  I don’t know enough about anatomy or gunshot wounds to speak with great confidence.  I suspect hydrostatic shock would have some pretty unpleasant effects on someone shot through the neck, and blowing out major blood vessels leading to the brain will lead to very rapid unconsciousness.  Same, I think, with the spinal cord that high.  Yeah, you can sever the spine without killing, but you have to do it low enough that the nerves which control breathing aren’t affected; pain could be felt above the break, but shock would set in pretty rapidly, so I doubt someone with a shot-out spine would be feeling much of anything.  And certainly nothing below the neck.

Is this delusional thinking, or is the narrator talking nonsense?  I can’t tell, the vast majority of the audience can’t tell, and it draws both them and me right out of any immersion that might have been set up.

We then find that this entire episode has been a recap or flashback taking place during a lecture given by Will Graham, tormented possessor of extraordinary empathy which somehow gives him insight into the criminal mind.  He later claims that “the evidence speaks”, but he rarely looks very hard at evidence.  He goes to crime scenes, glances around, closes his eyes and enters a trance where he perceives disjointed visions.  The original Will Graham was a careful and intelligent investigator with an excellent memory and occasional moments of insight; the show’s version is a psychic in all but name.  He has frequent nightmares and is the Dog Whisperer, with something like seven or eight canines sharing  his home; original Graham was fairly normal and married, with a son from the woman’s previous marriage.  I don’t recall any dogs.

Graham’s knack at psychological profiling is demonstrated in a scene in which he, viewing the personal data of the seven missing girls of similar appearance and build who have mysteriously vanished, declares that they’re like Willy Wonka chocolate bars, and the killer is looking for the one with the Golden Ticket.  Only one of the girls is so blessed, we’re told, probably hidden amongst the others.  “It’s what I’d do… wouldn’t you?” asks Graham.  Except that the canny viewer has probably realized that the common factor isn’t among the listed victims at all.  This “Golden Ticket” theory is never mentioned again; just as well, as events quickly show it to be wrong.  Oddly, even Graham discounts it – he claims the killer has a daughter or loved one who looks like the victims (plausible but not necessarily the case) and is the same age (possible but not necessary) and is going to be leaving home (ummm….).  Ahh, hmmm… well, those things are certainly possible, and of varying probability, but none of them are really justifiable claims at this point.  But Graham’s magic brain has produced them, so, they must be correct.

The rest of the show is like that, but worse.

Major points of my criticism follow:  first, the original novels that served as the inspiration for this show were well aware that psychological profiling is of extremely limited utility.  As is the case in reality, profiling gets none of the protagonists closer in any meaningful way to finding out who’s committing crimes.  The Silence of the Lambs verges on outright parody – Lecter’s almost gnostically-cryptic clues about the Buffalo Bill killer don’t derive from his extraordinary understanding, he saw the killer professionally as a psychiatrist and knows his identity.  He merely wants to draw out as much as he can from Clarice Starling and possibly develop her mentality by giving her clues.  But in this show, assertions come out of seemingly nowhere, and turn into facts with remarkable rapidity.

An principle of writing, whether for visual media or simple text, is that as far as possible the audience should be shown things, not told them.  Conclusions should procede from the information provided to the audience, not presented in them.  But that’s not what’s happening here.  The audience is not being shown suggestive evidence which presents both it and the fictional investigators with a puzzle.  It’s not being shown careful collection of data, the intelligent interpolation and extrapolation from what’s known, the occasional intuitive leap which is plausible yet not available to self-analysis.  It’s not even being shown frequent intuitive leaps.  The answers come out of nowhere; they are not earned, neither by the audience nor by the characters.  It’s… magic.

Remember Hannibal?  The person the show is named after?  He doesn’t show up for quite a while; when he does, the context would make someone unfamiliar with the Lecter mythos think that he’s implied to be the serial killer in question.  Who is he, why is he important, what’s his angle?  Aside from the constant stream of double-meaning quips and situations which can be meaningful only to someone familiar with the surrounding characters, we’re given very little.  Until he begins to do extraordinary things without obvious motivation within the show as we’ve seen it.   A naive viewer would be quite confused by this point in the show, and I couldn’t blame them.

If you’re looking for graphic violence and gore, this is the show you’re looking for.  Quality writing, in homage to familiar characters and the unquestionably well-written sources they come from?  Intelligent exploration of crime and detection?  Thoughtful entertainment?  Don’t bother.  You don’t even get good drama out of this one – it’s all forcibly provided through the nearly-subsonic soundtrack.

I’m told that NBC has already made two seasons’ worth of episodes, and I presume will be airing them regardless of viewer response merely to get it’s money’s worth.  So we’ll have to avoid this show for a while.  Online critics have been quite complimentary, even going so far as to call the show ‘brilliant’; I can only wonder if we watched the same program.

One Response to “Lazy Writing: Show, don’t Tell”

  1. I can’t imagine anyone not already familiar with Hannibal Lecter is watching the show.

    You’re right that psychic leaps are pretty absurd (and the surgical precision of the home-invader with a handgun is extra absurd). I’m willing to go with it, treating it as something to be experienced rather than a procedural to follow along. Of courese, I never read any of the books and like “Manhunter” for the stylized touches Michael Mann added, particularly the climax which deviates from the novel (it just seemed such a cheap misdirection in Brett Rattner’s “Red Dragon”). Lounds’ being a woman isn’t important to me (I suppose it’s more opportunity to make a distinction from previous portrayals) but the egregious behavior with little consequence is jarring.

    I was expecting you to remark on the fourth episode being pulled (though the serialized portions are available in six parts at Hulu), with the showrunner apparently thinking the Newtown shootings left it in bad taste. It will still air abroad, I guess because they won’t care about Newtown. It seems plausible to me that globalization of the media might eventually result in the end of such segmented markets. David Schleicher has noted that national politics has absorbed all the oxygen (“mind share” might be the appropriate word) to the extent that while people may know which party their governor belongs to, few know which controls the state legislature.

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