Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is Hannibal vs. The Americans the new Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men?

During the years that they were both on the air in the same calendar year, Breaking Bad and Mad Men were the two shows that battled it out for the unofficial title of Best Show on Television.  For the most part, there was very little question about the two shows' superior quality.  Both had a hand in ushering in the era during which AMC was seen as the new powerhouse network, an era that seems to have ended just as quickly as it came.  But even though many TV fanatics could agree that these were the two best shows on television, they were split on which one was actually the best show on television.  One's preference served to define them in some way: were you the kind of person who had a stronger response to Mad Men's sleek literary style or Breaking Bad's pulpy morality tale?

Now that Breaking Bad is over and Mad Men is entering its final season in a week, there's a void that's been left at the core of the television landscape.  Justified is near the end of a weak season, True Detective's quality doesn't quite match its pedigree and praise, and Enlightened was cancelled just as it was making a case for its place atop the TV Parthenon.  The two shows that appear to be the common response to the "what's the best show currently on television?" question are Hannibal and The Americans.  It's a pairing that doesn't seem to be as battle-ready as Mad Men and Breaking Bad were.  Those two had the benefit of being on the same network, centered around anti-heroes, and indebted to different aspects of The Sopranos.

At first glance, The Americans couldn't be more different from Hannibal.  One is a network drama while the other one is on cable.  One is about a serial killer, the other is about a pair of Russian spies in the 1980s.  But the coupling of the two brings out some interesting parallels.  Both were a part of the wave of great new television shows in 2013 -- a wave that included other potential contenders for the Best on TV title like The Returned, Rectify, and Orange is the New Black -- and while I admired them during their first seasons (The Americans ended up at #20 on my best of 2013 list, Hannibal at #12), I could never cross into the territory of fully loving them like many others did.  The Americans and Hannibal each had a cool vibe -- the latter in its clinical process, the former with its tight control and restraint -- that held me at a distance.  Yet in both shows, I saw something that implied those first seasons were only setup for when we got to the true fireworks factory in their second seasons.

Breaking Bad and Mad Men both had assured debut years, only to blow those respective seasons out of the water with their sophomore efforts.  If the parallels were to hold, it would only be fitting for Hannibal and The Americans to do the same.  And for the past 6 weeks, they've done just that, completely surpassing any kind of expectations that I had at the start of the year.  I predicted that The Americans would have a gigantic leap in quality in 2014 in my write-up for the show at the end of 2013, but if I'm being honest with myself, that was more of a wish than a guarantee.  It has had a leap though, mostly because the stakes feel so much higher this year.  Even in the first season, the show was always as much about a marriage as it was about spies (if not more so), and so far season 2 has stressed that point even more, after Philip and Elizabeth find the dead bodies of their two comrades and the couple's daughter when a mission goes wrong in the premiere.  The reminder of how much their duty is putting their family in danger is one that has hung heavily over these first six episodes, informing every decision they make, without it ever feeling heavy-handed.

Like Hannibal, The Americans is about the push and pull between its two main characters, and the marriage between Philip and Elizabeth is more layered and complex than ever.  Season 2 has delved deeper into the idea of roles and the way they factor into these people's lives.  It's about how their roles as spies and their roles as partners bleed into one another in ways both intentional and not.  This year, every character is crumbling under the weight of their own deception.  To match the complicated emotions running through the characters, the plot is even knottier this year.  You'll often have to watch each episode twice to get it, but you when you do get a grasp of it, you realize it's some crackerjack spy storytelling.  It's dizzying to see how many threads showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are tugging at, crossing and looping them around each other masterfully.  The lid is kept so tight on the show that when it finally comes off and the plot intersects with the relationship drama, it's thrilling, devastating stuff.

Meanwhile, Hannibal may not be as concerned with the concrete logic of its A to B plotting, but season 2 has had a similar ramp up in story.  This season opened on a scene showing Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter coming to blows at some point in the future, but instead of it feeling like a spoiler, it was just an indication of how the events would be proceeding this year.  The plot has moved way faster than you'd expect, with Hannibal's body count increasing and his sphere of influence increasing faster.  Season 1 ended with a reverse of what we've come to expect from this story: with Hannibal free and Will Graham behind bars.  You'd think that imprisoning the lead would handcuff the show, since so much of its hook last year was the complicated relationship between these two broken men.  But the battle between the two of them has only become more intense this year.  Being locked behind bars has caused Will to think of more cunning measures to prove his innocence, making desperate attempts to show that the guilt lies on Hannibal's head instead.

For Will, being trapped in his own head is far worse than being stuck in a cell, and the visual manifestations of his psychoses have only increased to reflect the darkness invading him.  If season 1 coasted along on its oblique dreamlike logic, then season 2 of Hannibal is pure nightmare theater.  The show's visuals are by far the most stunning on television, generating just as many chills from a simple framing choice as they do from an elaborate crime scene tableau.  This year, the sounds have stepped up to match the sights, with the score becoming more eerie and intrusive with each new episode.  Together, all of the show's technical elements serve to key the audience into the parts of the characters' inner psyche that they may not even be aware of.  Like the show's titular cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal is equally concerned with the artistry surrounding its story.

So if these two programs are the new titans that will be battling it out for televisual supremacy, then which one is the Mad Men and which one is the Breaking Bad?  There's not a one-to-one translation, really.  There's something to the sophistication and emotional temperature of The Americans that is strongly reminiscent of Mad Men, but its tightly constructed plot is very Breaking Bad.  Hannibal's got a more immediately hooky premise in the way that Breaking Bad did, but its favoring of atmosphere over plot recalls Mad Men.  In the end, The Americans is more like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is more like Hannibal, which makes the battle even more interesting, since I like Mad Men more than Breaking Bad but Hannibal more than The Americans right now.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad both had second seasons that are some of the best television seasons of last 10 years, and while neither The Americans nor Hannibal have quite reached that level halfway through, they're not far off from the trajectory.  Together, all four shows are an example of the anti-sophomore slump -- the "sophomore skyrocket," if you will.  The internet has a need to pit shows against each other for no real reason, so the latter two are just next up in the queue now that the former two are on their way out.  So is Hannibal vs. The Americans the new Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men?  Sure, why not?


  1. I still have yet to see The Americans (I know!), so I can't comment on the comparison between the two specifically, but I can agree on how Hannibal has drastically ratcheted up the tension and plot progression this year.

    I'm beginning to wonder if we're reaching that fight as soon as the next week or two, based on how close Jack is getting.

    1. I feel like such a clown because immediately after I said "I don't think Hannibal will ever be a show I fully love" on your blog, I fell head-over-heels in love with it.

      Bryan Fuller said the fight won't happen until the finale, but I have a feeling he's trolling us. The plot is moving too fast for that to happen so far from now.