Originally published October 28, 2015
EVEN THOUGH IT is now cancelled, give me Hannibal over Criminal Minds any day.
Evil is fascinating, particularly if you’re a writer. And one would be hard-pressed to get more evil than a serial killer, short of escalating to Hitler. They walk among us, often blending seamlessly into the crowd, hunting for their preferred victims. And then, they strike, leaving horror in their wake.
It’s difficult to look away, even as it leaves your stomach churning. It’s little wonder that so many of our horror movies, from The Silence of the Lambs to Scream to the trashiest of slasher films revolves around them. And, I will be the first to admit that Criminal Minds does something special.
They use the real psychology.
Take any episode of Criminal Minds. Then, look up the psychology of the UNSUB (or UNknown SUBject) after the episode. Odds are that it will all check out. Narcissists and psychopaths really do work that way. I always found that it made for interesting (and frequently horrifying) reading after each show. But that wasn’t what turned me away from watching as soon as Hannibal came onto the air.
As strange as it sounds, it was that Hannibal was done in such a way that Criminal Minds stopped seeming true to life.
I know that this is an odd statement to make, particularly after I’ve just talked about how realistic the psychology is in the show. But, what lets Criminal Minds down is its formula. While the UNSUBs are fascinating and accurate to real-life psychology, the serial killer-of-the-week, or procedural format, undermines it all.
Those main characters who spend every week profiling horrific psychopaths should be utter wrecks by now. Instead, they seem to float above it all, untouched, as they deal with the most horrific acts humanity has to offer. There’s this old saying that when you stare into the abyss, it stares back into you. There’s a lot of truth to that, and serial killer profilers in real life tend to have their share of stress-related problems, both physically and mentally.
(For a good look at this, read John Douglas’ book Mind Hunter — Douglas is the man who effectively created modern serial killer profiling, and this took quite a toll on him and his family.)
With Hannibal, the serial format allows us to see the corrosive effect on the protagonists. They do not come out unscathed from staring into darkness. As a result, Hannibal comes across as more disturbing, more horrifying, and more true to life than Criminal Minds, even though the final season was highly stylized. The formula is different, and it works better for the subject matter.
Formula and format are a bit like a trope — done properly, they can help hone a story or series. Done poorly, they destroy immersion and suspension of disbelief.
Take House, for example. The overall format of the show was a case-of-the-week, which is appropriate for a medical drama. Unfortunately, the formula in each episode involved House and his team nearly killing their patient with the wrong treatment multiple times before getting it right. Mistakes like that are fine for one or two episodes, but when they are repeated week after week the viewer can be forgiven for wondering just how House manages to keep his job.
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories also had a formula, one that was used to good effect. Almost every story started in Holmes’ sitting room, with a client explaining some seemingly impossible case. Since Holmes was a consulting detective, this made sense, and the cases were all different once they left the sitting room.
The format and formula for Stargate: SG1 involved a highly artificial conceit that works. The characters can understand the languages of the planets they visit without spending time having to figure them out. Logically, this makes little sense — considering the isolation from Earth of the planets in question, upon first contact there should be tremendous communication problems. But, instead, everybody seems to speak English. In terms of the show, however, it means that the first half of every episode doesn’t have to be a brand-new language lesson, and they can just get to telling the story.
With Hannibal, the movement away from the serial killer-of-the-week was the right thing to do. By nature, the procedural places its focus on the crimes the heroes have to solve. There may be a bit of character development, but by necessity it has to take a back seat. By giving each case multiple episodes and room to breathe, the show is able to focus on the journey of the characters instead of the serial killers they hunt, making it feel more like real life — despite the conceit of Will Graham being next to psychic.
In the end, there isn’t really a hard and set storytelling rulebook about how to use formula and format. It comes down to what works — and sometimes this can be quite counter-intuitive. After all, who would have thought that one of the best serial killer shows on television would have been one with the fewest serial killers?