"I never feel guilty eating anything," purrs Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as he serves up another portion of some erotically charged exotic delicacy. NBC's Hannibal (Friday, 10/9c), in its second season, is a feast of macabre freakishness, going beyond the realm of guilty pleasure in a sustained nightmare of horrific yet elegantly hypnotic design.
Bryan Fuller's (Pushing Daisies) masterful reinterpretation of the Thomas Harris oeuvre deserves the kind of buzz and popularity that The Walking Dead enjoys. Its intensity, intelligence and dark power are the equal of anything on cable, with riveting performances led by Mikkelsen as the dapper, sinister fiend-in-plain-sight and Hugh Dancy as his tormented patsy, FBI profiler Will Graham, currently caged behind bars and suspected of Lecter's crimes as a result of the mad doctor's manipulative mind games. "I can't get you out of my head," Will informs his nemesis — and we know how he feels, as we succumb to Hannibal's spellbinding weirdness.
"This is going to get ugly," declares an FBI investigator (Cynthia Nixon) looking into the possible misconduct of Graham's boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) in pushing Will past his mental brink. "It already has," Jack glumly concedes. And it's only getting started, with its hallucinatory imagery and food-fetish ghoulishness keeping us transfixed and entertained in a sensually sensory overload. A violent teaser at the start of Friday's premiere promises an explosive reversal in weeks to come, and I'm already seriously considering canceling my Friday night plans this spring.
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TO BINGE OR NOT TO BINGE: It has now been two weeks since Netflix unleashed the 13-episode second season of House of Cards, and my reaction to the supposed phenomenon is: What's the rush?
It's a question I kept pondering as I got caught in Cards' deliciously dark undertow. Binging is the online-TV buzzword of choice, a status-symbol indulgence perpetuated by the Netflix model of releasing an entire season's worth of episodes at once. Like with potato chips, we all know it's impossible to stop at just one — especially considering the shocker (no spoilers here) in Cards' first episode of the season, which pretty much demands staying tuned immediately for the next. It's a practice Netflix not-so-subtly reinforces by starting the clock on the following chapter before the final credits stop rolling. But should anyone force-feed 13 episodes of anything just to be able to brag about it at work or on Twitter?
There's a point at which a binge becomes a gorge, and with Cards in particular, this practice doesn't do the show any favors. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are once again stunningly effective as D.C.'s most amusingly insidious spiders, Francis and Claire Underwood, the newly installed Vice President and his icy wife. (And this season they're matched by Gerald McRaney, as his rival for the president's attention, and Molly Parker as his opportunistic replacement as party whip.) But everyone's ruthlessly cynical machinations can take on a wearying predictability if devoured hour after hour without a break. Anyone with principles will sacrifice them or be sacrificed, we get it.
Last year, I watched the entire first season of Cards over the first weekend because of the novelty, and because I felt I had to. With the Olympics, Valentine's Day, The Walking Dead and even American Idol as distractions this year, I decided to pace myself, and enjoyed the experience much more by spreading the story out over more than a full week (which would still feel like a binge to many people). Unlike the blur of last year's gorge, this time I could savor the twists and walk away when it all became too much.
So consider this a cautionary tale: Just because you can binge doesn't mean you necessarily should.
THE WINNER IS: Usually not the host of the Oscars on ABC (Sunday, 8:30/7:30c). It's a thankless, almost impossible job to keep this bloated production aloft and enjoyable, but if anyone can tame this beast, it's probably the affable, adorable Ellen DeGeneres, returning to the gig for a second time, replacing Seth MacFarlane's smarm with charm. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, returning for a second year, are once again going big on music, luring Pink and Bette Midler (incredibly, her first Oscar performance) to take the stage, along with an impressive roster of superstars reprising their nominated movie songs, including U2 ("Ordinary Love"), Pharrell Williams ("Happy") and Wicked icon Idina Menzel ("Let It Go"). A salute to The Wizard of Oz on its 75th anniversary makes cinematic sense, but the night's theme of celebrating movie heroes of all sorts (real-life, animated, superheroes) sounds like the kind of padding that can make the average Oscar viewer awfully restless. It's a long night of self-congratulation to begin with, so any attempt to stretch things out might be the opposite of heroic.
And while he will certainly be acknowledged in the "In Memoriam" segment, filmmaker Harold Ramis will also be remembered by VH1 in a weekend block of his comedy classics Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2 and Animal House, starting Saturday at 7/6c (repeated Sunday at 11 a.m./10c).
THE WEEKEND PLAYLIST: In a display of network synergy, the humans and aliens of ABC's The Neighbors (Friday, 8:30/7:30c) are throwing an Oscar party to remember. ... Melanie Griffith guests on CBS's Hawaii Five-0 (Friday, 9/8c) as Danny's mother, arriving in Oahu with what's described as "shocking" news. ... Speaking of shocking, what is Tommy Chong doing romancing Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) on Fox's Raising Hope (Friday, 9:30/8:30c)? ... When news broke of the plans to resurrect The Odd Couple as a series with Matthew Perry as Oscar Madison, my first thought went to: Why can't he wait until Jim Parsons is free to play Felix? Which might make for a good sketch as the Big Bang Theory star hosts NBC' Saturday Night Live for the first time (11:30/10:30c). Beck is musical guest for the seventh time. ... Oscar nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) is Hannah's beloved but dying grandmother on HBO's Girls (Sunday, 10/9c), and as Hannah (next weekend's SNL host, Lena Dunham) rushes to be at her side, leaving Adam temporarily behind, why are we not surprised when she almost instantly starts squabbling with her cousin (Sarah Steele)? Not to be outdone, in a scene that could be dubbed "Hannah's Mom and Her Sisters," Loreen Horvath (Becky Ann Baker) locks horns with her sibs (Deirdre Lovejoy and Amy Morton) with such ferocity you almost can't blame Granny Flo for wanting to call it a life.