Make TV Scare Again: Friday favorites

TV can be quite a commitment. And we’ve thrown a lot of commitment at you so far this week. But let’s get down to brass tacks. What if we were to pick just one TV series that you should watch for Halloween? What are our top recommendations?

After the jump, snow and serial killers.

Tom Chick: Fortitude
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In the first episode of Fortitude, two things happen before the opening credits are even over. A photographer shoots a man being killed by a polar bear. Three months later, a young boy and girl find something dead and rotten in a melting glacier. When the boy gets home, he keels over.

Is Arctic Gothic a thing? If not, it is now. It’s too bad I have to recommend Fortitude in a Halloween line-up, because now you know the subject is horror. There are points when it more closely resembles a Resident Evil than a Twin Peaks. It’s also a coherent and self-contained story with a definite end. By the time the season is over, everything is answered. You’ll probably wonder why there’s a second season starting in January.

The name of the show is the name of a remote town deep in the Arctic Circle, on an isolated island jointly governed by the UK and Norway. Later in the first episode, Stanley Tucci has just arrived. He’s a policeman from Scotland Yard, but we don’t now what he’s doing here. He just showed up. Now he strolls into the town morgue where a young Norwegian policewoman is performing a postmortem on a murder victim. Did I mention this is one of those TV shows about a murder that turns out to be more than just a murder? And not the polar bear guy. That’s something else entirely.

“Who are you?” the policewoman asks. She has an accent. Her syllables are clipped and sometimes hesitant.

“DCI Morton,” he says, putting on latex gloves as if he belongs there.

DCI is an English designation for detective chief inspector. But he is obviously American.

“From London?” she asks.

“Mm-hmm.”

He proceeds to examine the corpse, giving it his full attention. She’s not sure who he is, or why he’s here, or whether he’s even supposed to be here.

“So, you’re here to help?” When she asks a question, her intonation ends in a precipitous rise.

“That’s right.”

“From London?” she asks again.

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“Mm-hmm.” He puts on his glasses. He is examining the corpse, giving it his full attention.

“But he was only declared dead 12 hours ago.”

“Mm-hmm.” It’s as if he isn’t listening to her. He is occupied by the examination already. Christopher Eccleston’s gutted corpse is stretched out upon the table.

“So how could you have got here, from London, to help with the postmortem, if you would have had to leave when he was still alive?” She has a point. Fortitude will not gloss over this point.

“…’if you would have had to leave’,” he quotes, still focusing on his examination of the corpse. “Your English is very good,” he says this almost to himself, his brain processing two things at once. Grammar and forensics. He absorbed in the detail of both, simultaneously.

Tucci is amazing in Fortitude. Really, everyone is. And it’s such a rich cast. Most small town mysteries are characterized by cultural homogeneity. They’re small towns, after all. But Fortitude, being far north of anywhere and at the unlikely intersection of Norway, the UK, and Russia, has no single identity. It’s not Norwegian, it’s not British, it’s not Russian. It’s not a mining town, it’s not a resort, it’s not a research outpost, it’s not a rugged wilderness, it’s not a distant island hundreds of miles from any major cities. It’s all of these things. The people who are here are here for dramatically different reasons. As an interaction of characters, Fortitude is like one of those shows about a space station where a bunch of people and aliens live together. But this Arctic wilderness is far more dazzling than any mere space station. This is a gorgeous location (it was shot in Iceland) and the cinematography is stunning.

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If I had to pick one favorite thing about Fortitude, it would probably be Richard Dormer, the actor who plays the obligatory local policeman. Dormer is gruffly mesmerizing. And that voice. He’s very Irish in real life, but he’s playing a Norwegian. I would pay money to hear him just read from a phone book. It’s quite an accomplishment in a TV show with the renowned Michael Gambon that Gambon’s voice isn’t the most fascinating. It’s not clear for a while whether he’s the protangonist or the villain. It’s not even clear where he fits into the story at times. But like all of Fortitude’s mysteries, it will be clear by the time the season is over, and it probably won’t be what you expected. Arctic Gothic, indeed.

You can watch Fortitude on Amazon. And you totally should.

Chris Hornbostel: Hannibal
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Hannibals opening episode is one of the great teases in all of television. It promises a rote FBI procedural, a CSI thing with profilers and a psychic twist. You’re watching and thinking you’ve seen this show done a dozen times before. It took me three or four failed attempts to get into the show at all over the course of the last few years. Id watch that first episode and yawn and wonder what all the buzz from friends and critics was about. Imagine my surprise when I finally dove in all the way.

Part of the impact that Hannibal makes across its three season run is that it gives us glimpses of being that kind of overdone formula investigation show tripe that fills network TV. But then the ending of that first episode is something of a shocker, and showrunner Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies) slowly does his reveal; he’s going to subvert that formula completely. By the third episode Hannibal is as dark as anything ever presented on network television in America and from there Hannibal becomes a sort of chilling, spooky house of horrors. Like a good magician, the show constantly misdirects its audience. One minute this is all dully familiar, the next, chilling, horrific, and completely unsettling.

Hannibal is a prequel of the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, and I suppose also the two movies that were based on it. (Manhunter, Michael Mann’s 1986 film based on Red Dragon is a tour de force; Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon from 2002 is a little less so.) The Hannibal Lecter that movie audiences are familiar with is a cannibal killer so feared that he’s kept in a dungeon. The TV show gives us the background story, showing us the Lecter who helped the FBI’s gifted but disturbed profiler, Will Graham, solve cases while the latter slowly came to realize that his doctor friend was a murderer himself.

The strong cast of Hannibal is reason to recommend it alone. Mads Mikkelsen plays the title character as if it had been written with him in mind. He holds the camera with his eyes, and we can see him constantly thinking many moves ahead of his antagonists. The book and movies that detail the relationships that Lecter had with the FBI profiling unit never really closed the circle on Hannibals motivations for stringing Will Graham and his cohorts along. Mikkelsens eerie and dominating portrayal fills in those blanks for us. Watching him think and consider carefully each bit of dialogue he has is exquisite. The Hannibal mythology also requires that Lecter and Graham be equally matched in this cat-and-mouse game, and the series gets that right. Hugh Dancys dreamy, if tortured portrayal of Will is as good as Mikkelsens, and it has to be. Hes the center of the show and our window into this world.

If I were to teach a class on fiction construction, I might use Hannibal’s three season show construction as a model for how to construct a good plot. The first season clearly lays out our conflict and establishes the characters. As the season goes along we become more and more aware of the obsession that all involved have for a serial killer called the Chesapeake Ripper. Almost as if by accident, we come to realize that this mysterious murderer will be the focus of the show. By season two, we’re into rising action. Were dazzled by the way Hannibal can string along Will Graham and the rest of the FBI group, even if Will has put the pieces together on Lecters activities. Season three is the climax and denouement; all the details we remember being hinted about in the movies or book are covered skillfully, including a resolution of sorts.

As with Outcast, one of the things Hannibal does that helps to create unease and fear in us is to make us like its characters, and then happily place them in serious danger. We see early on how Lecter deals with loose ends. It isnt long until Will Graham and most of his support crew of FBI investigators and doctors are all loose ends to some extent, potential targets and future dinners. The show also misdirects us by making Will Graham an unreliable narrator. We see through his fractured perception so often that we begin to doubt along with him as to what might be real here. And make no mistake, Will Grahams perception becomes the thing of nightmares.

There are no zombies, vampires, or poltergeists in Hannibal. There is real horror here, however, and the show is as tense and dark and frightening at times as anything a major network has ever dared to broadcast in prime time. Hannibal as a show is full of haunts and human monsters. It is a show where peril and terrible evil lurk around every corner, behind every door, and under every bed. This is a turn the lights out, edge of the couch experience that will seep into your dreams and nightmares.

You can watch Hannibal on Amazon.

Next week: books
What’s all this Make Such-and-Such Scare Again?

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