If you’re tired of conventional, episodic crime shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order,” look no further; NBC’s best non-comedy series ever “Hannibal” and HBO’s crime-thriller powerhouse “True Detective” are taking TV dramas in a grim, yet absolutely compelling direction. “Hannibal” is a highly stylized and elegantly shot adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. The show follows eccentric, troubled FBI investigator Will Graham as he looks into gruesome – yet tastefully sophisticated – homicides from the perspective of the killers. He is being led astray and framed, however, by culinary enthusiast, reputed psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It’s grisly but beautiful – there’s something of a dark artistry present.
On the other hand, there’s the gritty, barebones “True Detective,” specializing in ultra-realistic visuals along with equally surreal and literary content. The show features Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Rust Cohle and Marty Hart – protagonists who make a Heart of Darkness-esque descent into a sanctuary of the occult.
The casting for each series has reached near-perfection. Mads Mikkelsen – who played Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and collaborates closely with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn – brilliantly plays Hannibal with an unnerving sense of composure and machine-like nature, rivaling the performance of original Hannibal Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Co-star Hugh Dancy is an excellent and very vulnerable Will Graham, and both he and Hannibal play off each other in an entangling game of cat-and-mouse.
In the first season of “True Detective,” McConaughey and Harrelson gave some of the best performances of their careers. Harrelson’s complex adulterer was overshadowed by the even more intricate and brooding McConaughey, whose character is probably the single most compelling persona I’ve seen on TV in years – dare I say of all time.
While “True Detective” does arguably deal with more disturbing subject matter regarding ritualistic child murders and sacrifices, I would argue that both shows are equally unsettling. While they portray darkness and cynicism using different aesthetics and foci, they both utilize them effectively. “Hannibal” makes use of highly complex psychiatric and medical terms while bringing art, cuisine and culture into the mix to probe the minds of serial killers and schizophrenics. Conversely, “True Detective” uses very domestic – but still complex – issues for Hart and extremely misanthropic, existential reflection for Cohle.
These series add a new level of poignancy and intellectual stimulation to crime drama while subverting the conventions of the police procedural. They either break free from it altogether or bend it in unique ways, making the characters more complicated and the perpetrators more enigmatic.
“Hannibal” gets away with literal murder on a primetime network that is incredibly regulated by censors. Whether it’s a massage therapist paralyzing her patients, lobotomizing them as they watch without feeling the pain; a victim’s back being ripped in two to resemble angel wings; a mural made of human corpses – it’s gripping, unsettling and its quality feels more so on the level of HBO than of NBC.
“True Detective” is more grit and realism as opposed to the artistic tableaux of “Hannibal,” but both are praised for their cinematography, writing and acting. They are bringing crime dramas to a zenith that television has never before seen, setting higher standards for viewers and producers alike. After watching these shows, you won’t want to watch other crime dramas. Odds are they just won’t cut it.