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Jeff Simon

The TV season is new, most of its ideas are not

Jeff Simon

On Aug. 15, 1986, I sat down in a suburban movie theater and watched as the American imagination underwent a radical transformation.

I was there to review Michael Mann's "Manhunter," a film starring William Petersen of no special advance repute whatsoever, aside from the identity of its stylish director.

I was blown away by it. Not by the performances or direction, though both were good. It was the basic idea of the film that captured me completely. I wasn't alone. Eventually, it captured America. It was based on a novel called "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris, whom I now regard as possessing the most influential and important pulp imagination of the past 75 years.

What rocked me that afternoon was the film's basic idea – that a gifted FBI agent named Will Graham needed to get completely into the heads of serial killers to capture them and bring them to justice.

And furthermore, one way he sought to do that was to consult a brilliant serial killer named Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, a flesh-devouring monster who had been a psychiatrist.

The film was a very mild success. It was no smash by any means. That would come later.

It was its influence that, in just a few short years, became tidal. It almost completely took over the dark side of the American imagination.

Serial killers turned up everywhere – novels, television, movies. More importantly, so were their empathetic profilers like Graham, who sought to get as far inside their deranged heads as possible for the sake of catching them.

The children of Harris' imagination proliferated – "Profiler" and "Criminal Minds" most successfully on TV; and Harris' next novel, "The Silence of the Lambs," which reprised a role for Lecter and turned into an Oscar-sweeping and epochal movie.

Under that onslaught of Harris' influence on the American imagination, it became possible, after 9/11, to think of that hideously dark day in 2001 as a horror that may have gestated in Harris' previous novel "Black Sunday" from 1975, which elaborated on the terrorized Munich Olympics in a fantasy of the Super Bowl attacked by a Goodyear-style blimp. That, too, became a movie. Is it possible America's most avid and pitiless enemies were getting ideas from Harris' darkly captivating fantasies?

When it was time to publish a 25th anniversary edition of "The Silence of the Lambs," Harris took the occasion to explain where he got the idea for Lecter. Lecter came, wrote Harris in the introduction, from "an insane inmate at the Nuevo Leon State Prison in Monterey, Mexico whom [Harris] met as a 23-year old journalist on assignment for Argosy Magazine."

Harris told us the killer had been a surgeon. And, he was told, "as a surgeon he could package his victims in a surprisingly small box."

The TV series "Hannibal" is gone, but it was a wildly imaginative triumph and its memory won't go away easily.

The newest unofficial offspring of Harris' imagination is the new series "Prodigal Son" on Fox. It's about an FBI investigator whose father – played by the estimable actor Michael Sheen – is an imprisoned serial killer.

Sheen's last major role, somewhat incredibly, was Dr. William Masters, the revolutionary sex researcher who was somewhat fictionalized in a Showtime TV show.

Ever since Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for approximately 15 minutes of screen time as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, serial killing geniuses have been coveted screen roles.

Sheen has a wonderful time casting lunatic grins at everyone in sight. But my favorite performance in this new fantasy about the most lunatic fringe of the killer's avocation is that of Lou Diamond Philips, who plays the FBI superior of the federal agent whose father is the cheerfully insane prisoner suffering from Hannibal syndrome.

We have, let's face it, been seeing Philips for 20 years now as a deeply disturbed bad guy. He's been good at it.

Not in "Prodigal Son." At long last, he's the good guy, upscale cop concerned about the extreme instability of the gifted investigator who just happens to have serial killing in his DNA.

What that means for Philips is that he gets a chance to be calm and avuncular as often as not. He's Citizen Lou, at long last, a fellow who doesn't have to be thrown into the clink or burned at the stake as he usually does in the world of American tele-fiction.

. . .

It's from the kitchens of Ryan Murphy and it's not a major triumph of the new TV season, but it is a palpable one.

So, in a smaller way, were, for me, "Stumptown" and Cobie Smulders as a private eye in Portland, Ore., who is a former Army cop now suffering from PTSD. Most of us don't know that Portland is known as "Stumptown." It seems in its initial growth spurts, it had more stumps of cleared trees than people.

Our disturbed private eye is an unpredictable, ultra-violent and sexually avid brute whose skills as a war zone military cop were prodigious. She still likes bashing thugs upside the head, two at a time, and then stashing them in a filthy car trunk until she can find a cop.

She's not exactly the sort of young woman you'd bring home to mom, which is a long way from Smulders' last role in "How I Met Your Mother."

The show is based on the graphic novels of Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth, which means it's got lots of comic attitude to go with the mayhem. It's a nice way to pass the time in that state midway between active appreciation and prime-time trance that most of us achieve watching nightly TV.

. . .

A few more notes on this new TV season:

"Dancing with the Stars": Apparently the partisans of "Dancing" weren't fond of Bobby Bones winning last year, so there are new rules this year, allowing more home participation as often as possible.

Not a good idea that. Look how that turned out in current Washington.

What it means on "DWTS" is that the show's only real certifiable star this year – Mary Wilson of the Supremes – was dispatched the first week. Two of the contestants – former ferocious football star Ray Lewis and model Christie Brinkley – have already had to leave the show because of injuries (Brinkley's broken arm meant she got her daughter Sailor to replace her).

I'll grant you Wilson wasn't Diana Ross, superstar, but as actual stardom goes in America, proximity to Ross in the Supremes made for the real thing – more so, for instance, than the show's Lamar Odom, the former Kardashian husband and basketball big man whose biggest reputation is based on wranglings with drugs and brothels.

It's usually been the genius of "DWTS" to try to reclaim those who have run afoul of American normalcy, rectitude or mediocrity in some way. Odom is this season's big reclamation (or normalization) project. The lesser one is Sean Spicer, former press secretary to the self-styled scourge of Washington's "Deep State" and undrained "swamp."

Spicer, to put it politely, is no star, but don't tell me the show didn't achieve a major moment when, on its opening week, it brought Spicer out for a number wearing a frilly, poofy, Desi Arnaz shirt the color of key lime pie.

A bad "DWTS" season most likely, but not worthless.

"NCIS": Ziva is back. In other words, Mark Harmon has to try to remain awake enough to deliver lines to Cote de Pablo, the Chilean-American actress who, for reasons known only to television, was repurposed as a former Israeli Mossad agent on the show. There are limits to how sleepy an actor can be in a scene with de Pablo, an intense woman who pays serious attention. The Ziva plot line is a bit of third-rate spy stuff, but it's nice to see her back anyway.

"Bluff City Law": Memphis is known as "Bluff City" about as much as Portland is called "Stumptown." This is a sub-par legal series starring Jimmy Smits, with graying temples, and Caitlin McGee. They play a scrappy father and daughter. He preaches all the time about humanity and righteousness. She's a control freak who big-foots everyone else's cases in their law firm because she's smarter than everyone else. It's a show about a crummy place to work, if you ask me. It helps if you can contrive to watch it as you drift off to sleep.

"All Rise": Same with this. It's about a new L.A. judge who was formerly a prosecutor. She, too, is smarter and better than everyone else, but she's much nicer about it than the big-foot lawyer played by McGee. Memphis should probably sue. It tries to be Ally McBealish. Personally, I had trouble, in its opening moments, ascribing a light tone to someone shooting a gun in open court.

"Bob Hearts Abishola": A sitcom that tries to be sweet and almost succeeds. Which is to say that it's not a good sitcom, even though it has a fresh sitcom notion, i.e., a romance between an overweight Detroit manufacturer of socks who has a heart attack and the nurse from Nigeria he wakes up to in the hospital. She is so angelic he falls hard for her despite cultural differences that couldn't be wider. He is played by Billy Gardell of "Mike and Molly" and she is played by Fdake Olowofoyeku, and they're delightful to watch.

If you notice the show was created by far too many writers, that may explain its unevenness of tone. Suddenly, all that sweetness will come up short and ugly when there are stupidly cynical jokes about the third-world countries making the socks he sells. It's the wrong place in the wrong show for that kind of cynicism, but she is so winning that it's going to be a little hilarious watching journalists try to remember how to spell her name. They're going to have to, though. She's that good.

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