Tuned In: Mind games give 'Hannibal' its edge

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PASADENA, Calif. -- NBC's "Hannibal" returns tonight at 10 for its somewhat improbable second season. The show got generally low ratings in its first outing last year but a decent amount of critical buzz.

Based on the Thomas Harris novels about Dr. Hannibal Lecter, featured in "Silence of the Lambs" and other big-screen adaptations, "Hannibal" follows criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), his work for FBI boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Graham's relationship with mentor/adversary Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).

Season one was a weird mix of maddening plot holes, grotesque, sometimes illogical crime scene imagery and terrific character development that partially redeemed the show's failings and excesses.

As season two begins, "Hannibal" seems somewhat less graphic -- or maybe I'm just inured to its gore -- but fully intent on continuing to explore its characters and their damaged, depraved psychological terrain.

Tonight's season premiere opens with Lecter in a knock-down fight with Crawford -- it appears not to end well for the FBI boss -- before flashing back 12 weeks to a time when Crawford believed Lecter and not Graham, who is in prison after being framed by Lecter for murder. Presumably Crawford's allegiances will flip during the season. But at this point, Lecter has basically taken over Graham's role as an FBI consultant on serial killer cases.

At the FBI, Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas, "Wonderfalls") initiates an investigation of Crawford's handling of Graham, much to the disappointment of an FBI internal investigator (Cynthia Nixon, "Sex and the City").

Lecter has his own struggle with his shrink, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (guest star Gillian Anderson), who seems to know more about Lecter than she's willing to share when he asks her to talk to the FBI as part of its investigation of Graham's accusations.

"You maintain a degree of transparency while putting me in the position to lie for you -- again," she says. By the second episode of the new season, Bedelia seems even more wary of Lecter.

It's in these scenes that "Hannibal" shines. The psychological cat-and-mouse games the characters play are more interesting and a welcome respite from the intense, horrifying serial killer stories.

The Graham story -- always the show's least interesting with the dull, unending appearances of the stag of solitude that creeps into his imagination -- actually benefits from Graham's imprisonment. At least now he can have his reveries in a place where they distract from solitude. And he gets to play a reverse Lecter (from "Silence of the Lambs") as characters, including Lecter, come to visit Graham in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Prison also gives Graham more of a sense of humor ("One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong") and time to remember how Lecter framed him.

It's a credit to talented writer Bryan Fuller ("Pushing Daisies," "Dead Like Me") that "Hannibal" manages to intrigue even as it disgusts.

At a January press conference during the TV critics winter press tour, Mr. Fuller said he looks at snuggly dog videos online all day to offset the violence of "Hannibal."

"For me, part of it is stylizing the violence so it's heightened and not real," he said. "What we do on the show is sort of purple and operatic because, if it were real, I couldn't watch it. I couldn't work on it. So we are borderline fantasy with what we do on the show."

That hints at an explanation of last year's episode where a killer, known for filleting the backs of his victims and giving them angel wings made of their own skin, managed to fillet his own back and then string himself up in a barn. How was that even remotely possible?

"Ropes and pulleys and a mirror. Like, he's got a compact and then a mirror back there is how he did all that," Mr. Fuller said, not entirely joking. "There was supposed to be a system of ropes and pulleys off to the side so you could see how he hauled himself up."

Mr. Fuller acknowledged sometimes the show gets its reality-fantasy balance wrong.

"Sometimes it's like, OK, this is cooler if we do this," he said. "[We do] what's cooler for the story and what gives us the psychology of the story. I'm more interested in the psychology than I am the reality, because it is a very troubled headspace. So I think it has to balance toward the psychology of what the characters need to go through and then we bend reality, but if we break it, believe me, we get reminded to step back. And we are a show in reality, but it's heightened."

As for beginning this season with a scene set in the future -- the big fight between Lecter and Crawford -- Mr. Fuller said he was impatient to get to it.

"We knew how season two ended ... and I just didn't want to wait until the end of the season to see it," he said. "It was purely selfish on my part as a fan of Thomas Harris and a fan of these actors that I really just wanted instant gratification."

Yinzer humor on 'Kroll'

Next week's episode of Comedy Central's "Kroll Show" (10:30 p.m. Tuesday) includes a sketch called "Pawnsylvania," sort of a "Pawn Stars" send-up that features pawn shop owners in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia trading places. (Watch a preview online here: http://www.comedycentral.com/video-clips/5soqo7/kroll-show-preview---welcome-to-pawnsylvania)

And, yes, for once there is a Yinzer accent in prime time.

Mr. Kroll has said many of the show's writers are from Pennsylvania, including Jon Daly, a Shady Side Academy grad who plays the Pittsburgh pawn shop owner, Don of Don's Pawn.

Before hitting the road for Philly, Don asks his wife (Brigid Ryan, Shaler High School class of 1994), "Pack me a chip chop ham sandwich."

Zombie doc

"Doc of the Dead," about the rise of zombies in film, TV and literature, debuts at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, March 10 and has its premiere on cable's Epix network at 8 p.m. March 15. The film includes an interview with Pittsburgh native and zombie godfather George A. Romero and McCandless native Greg Nicotero ("The Walking Dead").

Locally, Epix is available on DISH Network (Channels 380) and on Verizon's FiOS TV (Channel 395/895HD).


HBO renewed "Looking" for a second season.

Comedy Central renewed freshman comedy "Broad City" for a second season.

BBC America renewed the previously canceled "Ripper Street" for a third season.

The syndicated reboot of late-night's "Arsenio Hall Show" has been renewed for a second season.

Syfy canceled the American remake of "Being Human," which is in the midst of its fourth season. The series finale will air April 7.

Channel surfing

It's the revival no one had been clamoring for: NBC announced Sunday it plans to bring back "Heroes" (2006-10) for a 13-episode miniseries to air in 2015 with series creator Tim Kring at the helm. "Heroes Reborn" has no cast yet but an NBC exec teased some original cast members might return. ... Canadian drama "The Listener," which aired on NBC in summer 2009, will get another chance in the U.S.: Ion will co-produce a 13-episode new season of the procedural about a mind-reading police consultant to air during the 2014-15 TV season. ... Disney fans, take note: Cable's Destination America will air a week of programs about Disney parks at 8 p.m. Monday through Friday next week, including resort hotels (Monday), cruise line (Tuesday), and parks behind the scenes (Wednesday and Thursday). ... Despite competition from the Olympics, PBS's "Masterpiece" presentation of "Downton Abbey" still logged its highest season finale ratings ever, drawing 8.5 million viewers. ... TCM brings back "Carson on TCM" at 8 p.m. Tuesdays beginning next week. Hosted by Conan O'Brien, the series features Johnny Carson interviews with film stars. ... The debut of "Late Night With Seth Meyers" logged the best ratings for "Late Night" in 10 years. ... Former Pittsburgher Brett King, brother of former KDKA-TV news anchor Patrice King Brown, has been hired as a consultant for Sony Pictures Television to design and implement a program to increase the diversity among directors for Sony's TV shows.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Project Runway: Under the Gunn," "When Calls the Heart" and cable in rural areas. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Downton Abbey," "Nashville," "Portlandia," The Red Road" and "Vikings." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

This week's podcast includes conversation about "About a Boy," "Growing Up Fisher" and "Portlandia." Subscribe or listen at http://old.post-gazette.com/podcast.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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