The Affect Effect: Notes on Sherlock and Hannibal

Last night, viewers in the US got to see what viewers in other parts of the world have already seen: the first episode of the third season of the phenomenally successful BBC show Sherlock. I've already seen it — twice, in fact — because I enjoyed previous seasons of the show enough to work around the BBC website's geographical limitations and watch the episode when it first aired, and then I saw it again at a local cinema's preview showing, where my friend Ann McClellan gave a presentation on Conan Doyle and Sherlock. I've also seen the other two episodes of the season, watching episode 2 twice and episode 3 once.

Recently, I watched the 13-episode first season of NBC's Hannibal, based on Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter character, and I've been thinking about certain overlaps and significant contrasts between the two shows in their approach to their material. The comparison first occurred to me after I re-watched the first episode of Sherlock in preparation for the new season and heard, again, Sherlock refer to himself as a "high-functioning sociopath" — immediately, I thought, "No you're not. But Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal is..."* That then got me thinking about connections between the two shows.

As I thought about the shows together, and as I watched the new episodes of Sherlock, I kept falling back on my own feelings, and feelings began to seem more and more important to the shows' successes. Sherlock especially succeeds through affectual production, letting the feelings it creates in viewers overcome all questions of plot, plausibility, consistency, etc. Why do we watch Sherlock? Because it feels good to do so. For instance, despite having various reservations about aspects of the show, I remain amused by it, entertained — and in such a way that I put forth the effort to be able to see the new episodes before they aired in the U.S. Why is this? Unlike some of my friends, I don't find any of the actors especially physically attractive, so it's not a matter of tuning in for the hotties. The mystery plots are generally ridiculous, and more and more the writers seem to emulate Conan Doyle himself in just not caring much about the plotting. Series creator Steven Moffat really does seem to be a douchebag, and his limitations sprout up throughout the show. But still I watch, still I enjoy.

For one thing, I'm a sucker for fast, clever dialogue, and Sherlock has a lot of that. (Or, to qualify: Sherlock has a lot of dialogue that is fast, and sometimes it is clever, and just as often it works very hard to make you think it's clever by being fast enough that you don't really notice or mind, much like a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song.) But the fast dialogue is not quite enough, or I'd be mainlining Aaron Sorkin shows.

Mostly, what carries me through Sherlock, and keeps me quite happily coming back, is the casting.  (The speed of the dialogue also allows the show to play to this greatest strength. The talented, committed cast of actors work very well with each other.) Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes almost rivals the great Jeremy Brett's in the specificity of his eccentricities, and the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Watson is marvelous. Even actors who get relatively little screen time give such well-defined, thoughtful, entertaining performances that there is a sense of them being more present than they actually are. The pleasure is in watching talented actors who enjoy their work ... enjoying their work. Though at first I found Andrew Scott's portrayal of Moriarty deeply annoying and mannered, even it won me over eventually.

Watching season 3, particularly the first and last episodes, what struck me is just how much the show's writers and directors enjoy manipulating their audience — and how much the audience enjoys being manipulated. Arguably, this is a fundamental pleasure of all commercial entertainment. But I think there's something else to the manipulation in Sherlock, and it's become something I'm growing to dislike in the show.

(After this point, plot elements of Sherlock season 3 will be revealed. I know how ... sensitive ... some Sherlock viewers are to anything they can smack with the label of "spoiler", so here is your warning, even though I generally think such things are idiotic.)

In an insightful review of the third season, Abigail Nussbaum argues that "Moffat's writing has always been characterized by a desire to hit the big emotional payoff without doing any of the work of earning it, and Sherlock's stylistic quirks only intensify that flaw." I'm not sure it's stylistic quirks that allow the creators of Sherlock to hit a lot of emotional moments in what might most charitably be described as an efficient or sketchy way as it is their real skill at training a receptive audience into pavlovian responses. Such a way of evoking emotion in a receptive audience is a matter of training that audience and then employing the narrative patterns that lead to the response. It's the technique of popular fictions since the dawn of popular fictions, and television writers in particular have refined the techniques masterfully. We, the happy viewers, are like John in the hands of Derren Brown: our feelings are programmed, controlled. The emotional responses that we are supposed to have moment by moment during the show are obvious and predictable. (Tingly joy at Sherlock's return! Teary laughter at how awkwardly he reveals himself to John!)

That the emotions the first episode evokes are predictable is part of the receptive viewer's pleasure: the emotions are predictable because they are desired. Sherlock would in many ways be more interesting if it refused those pleasures and frustrated its audience, but frustrated audiences don't tend to keep coming back for more. The dedicated viewer of Sherlock is an emotional masochist, but not a serious or incurable one, and certainly not a masochist who desires real surprise. The possible ways Sherlock can both surprise and satisfy its core audience grow less and less varied. Sherlock shooting Charles Augustus Magnussen at the end of episode 3 may be surprising in that we generally think of Sherlock as less violent than John, but it makes sense within the limitations of the show's world (it destroys Magnussen's knowledge, and Sherlock knows Mycroft won't allow him to be killed, so it's a perfectly acceptable solution), and even the title has prepared us: at John's wedding, Sherlock said that his first and last vow was to protect John and Mary at any cost. (It all but screamed, "Foreshadowing!", particularly if you knew the title of the third episode.)  By the third episode, the creators seem to know that though their faithful viewers are well programmed, the program is not infinitely malleable. They play with the knowledge, pushing against — but never breaking — the limitations. Were Sherlock to shoot Mary or, even more shockingly, Watson instead of Magnussen, we faithful viewers would be aghast. Moffat & Co. know this, of course, and enjoy teasing our desire for surprise while never actually delivering a surprise that is a shock. (There was never even any pretense of Sherlock actually being dead at the end of Season 2. In this respect, Conan Doyle delivered a true shock to his fans when he killed Holmes — he really wanted "The Final Problem" to be final!) It's as if they are sadistically saying to their massed masochists, "How'd that feel? Sherlock's got a girlfriend! Still like it? How'd that feel? Mary's not who she said she is! Still like it? Still? Hey, look, Moriarty!" But of course, Sherlock doesn't really have a girlfriend, and though Mary isn't who she said she is, she does love John and her background story becomes another way to actually heighten the emotional effect of the marriage, because not only do we get the pleasant sentiments that marriage and pregnancy produce, but we then get to have even more feelings when John forgives Mary. (This being a Moffat show, the man gets to forgive, the woman gets forgiven.) We know there's no legal trouble Sherlock could ever really get into, because his brother is all the power of the government and will look after him. Any jeopardy in Sherlock is always shallow, but the creators work against this by ramping it up, testing-teasing the fans much as Sherlock himself tests-teases John in the underground with the bomb: Ha ha! Made you feel something! Ha ha! Gotcha! You thought it wasn't safe! Ha ha!

popular meme among Sherlock fans (the man is Moffat)
The results are absurd to the point of parody, chained to Moffat's apparent desire to make Twitter go beserk, and so the characters get stuck in a compulsive repetition of departure and return. Moriarty's voice calling out, "Miss me?" is aimed as much at us as at the characters in the story, and the social marketing folks at the BBC were probably thinking of ways to use those two words from the moment the script was finalized.

At their most obvious, the emotional manipulations of Sherlock are tiresome, but there is still fun to be had in being manipulated when it works well. Hitchcock reputedly said he enjoyed playing the audience like a piano, and part of the pleasure of Hitchcock's best films is that the viewer gets to be a piano played by a virtuoso. Now and then, Moffat & Co. achieve virtuosity with Sherlock. For me, the height of that virtuosity in the third season is the second episode, "The Sign of Three", which may be my favorite of all the show's episodes so far. I watched it twice, and the first time through I got a bit restless, because I expected it to be a more typical episode, but instead it is much more carefully tuned — one seemingly stray element after another ends up becoming important to what is happening, and so by the end we can feel the pleasures of a mystery story put together like clockwork. The emotional manipulation is shameless, yet not quite overwrought.

One of the things that makes Hannibal's first season so effective is its ability to surprise, shock, and fascinate. Like Sherlock, Hannibal is based on a previously-existing canon of texts that have solidified in the public's mind — Hannibal Lecter hasn't been around as long as Sherlock Holmes, but he's nearly as well-known, especially via Anthony Hopkins' performance in The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris's novels have sold a gazillion copies, but they haven't yet fostered the sort of fan community that Conan Doyle's Holmes stories did almost immediately. (Sherlock Holmes fandom is not a new thing.) Nonetheless, the creators of Hannibal knew they had a challenging job, because they couldn't just invent the character from scratch, and, like the creators of Sherlock, they wanted to be faithful to the spirit of the original, and they didn't want to deviate too much from, especially, the first novel, Red Dragon, though some changes were necessary in order to have any room from which to create episodes.

In tone, Hannibal is vastly different from Sherlock — at its heart, Sherlock is a comedy, while Hannibal is a surreal tragedy. In traditional comedies, we expect and revel in the sort of shallow jeopardy that Sherlock thrives on; we don't expect or desire to be really scared or hurt, and we trust that order, happiness, and hope will be restored at the end. Hannibal is more King Lear than Much Ado About Nothing, promising that whatever order is restored at the end will be more exhausted than consoling. But the surreal elements bring Hannibal into a post-Woyzeck modernity.  Matt Zoller Seitz is right to see Hannibal as "a dream show, or a nightmare show, one in which nothing that happens can be taken literally or judged by the standards of what could plausibly happen in life." The endless implausibilities of Sherlock are goofy and absurd; the implausibilities of Hannibal are unsettling. Indeed, unsettling is the best adjective I have for the show, and it helps indicate why Hannibal is not, at least in its first season, as starkly manipulative as Sherlock or, for that matter, many other shows. The ground of Hannibal grows less and less settled with every episode.

Sherlock's narrative moves train our expectations and program our emotions; Hannibal's narrative trains us to mistrust our expectations, which then sets our emotional response to the material on edge. Because of the novels and movies, we know how this story ends: Hannibal Lecter goes to jail (for a while) after almost killing, and permanently disfiguring, Will Graham, who ends up, according to the novel of The Silence of the Lambs, "a drunk in Florida now with a face that's hard to look at." There is no reason to believe that Hannibal will violate those end points, and so our expectations are primed. Some of the suspense of the early episodes comes from our knowledge of Lecter: we expect him to start killing the nice people, and we feel wary for the characters who place trust in him. But as the character develops, we question our knowledge, and if we really give ourselves over to the show, we place trust in him. One of the most unsettling things for me was that I discovered, a few episodes in, that I really liked the character of Lecter as Mads Mikkelson performs him.** Certainly, in other versions, I have liked the performances, but Lecter is always alien and often horrifying. Mikkelson keeps the alienating horror — it's in the sharp deadness of his eyes — but covers it with a disorienting charisma and charm. One of the achievements of Hannibal is to help us understand just how Dr. Lecter could be so successful at winning over his prey. Indeed, half or three quarters of the way through the season, the show almost feels like a buddy-cop story, a 48 Hours for a new era, the Will & Hannibal show. Or, for that matter: Sherlock.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have always thrived because audiences love stories that fit a certain post-Enlightenment, pre-Modernism rationality. (It's the same desire that spawned science fiction.) Sherlock Holmes may be smarter than we will ever be, but he reassures us that the world can be figured out, that there is sense within what seems like chaos. We can fantasize about what fun it would be to be Sherlock, but that's not the fantasy we really respond to. What we love is the fantasy that somebody out there can figure it all out. It's the same desire that leads to various determinisms and essentialisms, to the reduction of the complexities and mysteries of a world beyond the scope of our comprehension. If we just know which clues to look for, then we can make sense of it all...

Hannibal is more pre-Enlightenment and post-Modernist. The world does not add up; its forces and flows can only be glimpsed, and those glimpses often redirect what they glimpse, and shards of reality are all that can be perceived. Compare Will to Sherlock — both have extraordinary powers of figuring out why particular events happen, but Sherlock knows how he does it and Will does not. For Will, it's simply a mysterious and torturous talent; for Sherlock, it is a skill. Will's ability to reconstruct murder scenes is mystical; Sherlock's ability to "deduce" all the details of a person's life is sold to us as rational. But from the days of Conan Doyle to now, most of Sherlock's deductions have been fanciful, even quite obviously ridiculous, because the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is a world where reason rules and human behavior is, like the emotional behavior of the dedicated Sherlock fan, patterned, predictable, determined, scrutable.

In Hannibal, the world is truly chaotic, and no clues will tame the chaos to any point of satisfaction. The danger for such a show is to make the chaos into a predictable pattern — this was the fate of Spooks/MI-5, where after a few seasons it became clear that main characters existed to be killed off. Chaos can be just as manipulative, predictable, and tiresome as order.

I have hope that this won't be the effect of chaos in the future seasons of Hannibal partly because the difference between the manipulations of Sherlock and the manipulations of Hannibal is that the latter are primarily carried out by the title character. Certainly, the Sherlock of Sherlock is manipulative and, in his own way, charming, but the affective work of seduction within the show is done by plot structures and character traits — our emotions are trained to respond to Mrs. Hudson in particular ways, for instance, that are not fundamentally a result of the character herself trying to beguile us. In Hannibal, we are all Hannibal Lecter's prey. In fact, as audience members, we're worse than the characters, because we know better. We know his feelings are not as he represents them. We know he is a master of making people do and feel what he wants. We know he is the Chesapeake Ripper. We know what is in his meals. And yet, still, I found it difficult not to want his friendship with Will to succeed.

The trajectory of Will's character is atypical for a protagonist in a mainstream story (never mind a network TV show!) — he starts out somewhat unstable and becomes a complete basket case. Here, the show benefits from our expectation that he will get better, that he will become more competent rather than less. We keep hoping and wanting him to snap out of it, to pull himself together, to wake up and realize some of the truth ... but instead, he only gets worse and worse. Hugh Dancy plays the character at a rarely-relieved pitch of tension and anxiety, and yet the performance is impressive because Dancy is able to find range within a very narrow spectrum. Basic advice to any actor playing a character who is given to emotion is to establish a calm baseline, something for the emotion to contrast from; Dancy's baseline is where many emotional characters end up, and then he builds from there. The show's surrealism helps it here, allowing more stylization of performance than a determinedly realistic show can get away with.

The great horror of the show, for me at least — the horror that is deep, that is beyond shock or disgust and somehow, perhaps, even into the realm of metaphysics — came in the final episodes, where the extent of Hannibal's manipulations became clear, and where my own desire for him to have had some ordinary human feelings got fully exposed for the naive fantasy it was.

That is Hitchcock-at-the-piano territory. Unsettling, disturbing — a nightmare. Beside it, Sherlock feels light and insubstantial. But Sherlock is, more often than not (for me, at least), satisfying. Fun. Hannibal is never satisfying and seldom fun. Alongside its powerful visual construction, its careful writing, its excellent performances, Hannibal offers something much more rare: wrenching epiphany. It constructs a strange world, sets up our expectations, manipulates our desires, and then tears those desires and expectations open, forcing us to gaze at the steaming grotesquerie of our guts. (That is what I most desire from art, Kafka's axe against the frozen sea within us.) Both shows are manipulative, as just about all stories are — the storyteller seeks to evoke responses in an audience — but Hannibal uses its manipulative power toward something beyond the basic joy of manipulation. In that, it is a rare TV show, indeed.

*I'm neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can offer only an amateur's armchair diagnosis, which could be as trustworthy as a child's rocket science. But it seems to me Sherlock is not a sociopath/psychopath in any meaningful sense of those terms. (An actual psychologist has said the same thing.)

**In "His Last Vow", the villain is played by Lars Mikkelsen, Mads Mikkelsen's brother. It's an effective performance, enough to make me wish the character had been woven through more episodes instead of dispatched so quickly.

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