In many viewers’ eyes, prequels are guilty until proved innocent. The Star Wars prequels satisfied few who’d gone through puberty, The Hobbit already looks to be an endless journey, and film history is littered with other excursions into fictional backstory that ultimately led nowhere. (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, anyone?) TV has an equally poor track record: Star Trek: Enterprise; Ponderosa; the Battlestar Galactica prequel, Caprica; and other series traded on well-known brands’ allure without capturing their magic and were so shackled by the need to maintain continuity with future time lines that their imaginations suffered. The most satisfying television prequel might have been the eighties kids’ cartoon series Muppet Babies. Like J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek and the CW’s Sex and the City prequel, Carrie Diaries—both of which have a goofy freshness—it seemed to be unfolding in an alternate universe, one in which the characters had the same names as ones you knew but enjoyed the freedom to go wherever the writers’ minds took them. You could call these sorts of prequels PINOS: prequels in name only.
The new series Hannibal and Bates Motel are PINOS with personality. Although they trade on established stories and characters, they aren’t interested in fitting into time lines; in fact they diverge rather drastically from what we already knew about their worlds. Both shows practice a bit of a bait and switch, trading on popular characters and place names but investing them with indie-film eccentricity. Bates Motel and Hannibal are slower and more dialogue driven than The Following and the murder-and-forensics thrillers airing on CBS and Fox; they wallow in atmosphere and little details of characterization, and they seem less concerned with what happens next than how the characters behave in the moment.
In theory, Hannibal is a continuation of Thomas Harris’s serial-killer novels and the films they inspired, including the 2007 prequel Hannibal Rising, a portrait of a serial killer as a young man. But where the movies followed a rough real-world chronology, with Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter serving as time-line anchor, NBC’s Hannibal is set in the present day, which makes it feel more like a do-over. This impression is confirmed once you meet disturbed FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the most scruffily professorial version of the character we’ve seen yet, and Hannibal, who’s played by the slender, heavily accented Mads Mikkelsen as an elegant prankster, a homicidal elf prince. When Graham’s superior officer, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), hires Lecter to evaluate Graham’s fitness for duty and then teams them up on serial-murder cases, Hannibal becomes a singularly weird buddy cop show about mismatched hyperintellectual crime fighters. One is a borderline-autistic lucid dreamer who can imagine his way into murderers’ minds; the other is a gourmet chef of entrails who might have secret connections to the killers the FBI is tailing. The show’s visuals are more expressionistic, even dreamlike, than anything seen in previous films, which is saying a lot. Hannibal treats the screen as a canvas and blood as paint. Some of the images have a Brueghelian beauty that goes beyond atrocity or obscenity and into abstract art: brains spraying on
a wall in a Jackson Pollock pattern; the hands of buried victims reaching up through the soil of a toadstool garden; a hallucinated buck sauntering through the dream-fogged hallway of a house.
The A&E series Bates Motel is even less connected to its source material, a world originally created by novelist Robert Bloch in Psycho. Norman Bates–ologists will recall that the first screen Norman, Anthony Perkins, starred in two sequels to the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, and that there was already another prequel, the TV movie Psycho IV: The Beginning. But it has no bearing on Bates Motel, a pino set in the world of cell phones and iPads. You knew it wouldn’t keep faith with Bloch’s story the minute you learned that Norman (Freddie Highmore) had a delinquent stepbrother (Max Thieriot). The show’s core is an affecting psychodrama about the relationship between Norman and his mother, Norma. Norma is played by the incomparable Vera Farmiga, who has an eerie warmth; she keeps the character likable even when she’s asking her son to help dispose of the body of a rapist and seducing a local cop to short-circuit an investigation. The show is sympathetic to Norma (known only as Mrs. Bates in the original film) and her son, who seems more like her platonic spouse than her offspring; at times it plays like a perverse modern cousin of Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas. And with each passing episode, Bates Motel drifts further away from its source, delving into the town’s dark secrets (which include drug smuggling and sex trafficking) and playing up the misty Vancouver atmosphere in a way that brazenly evokes Twin Peaks.
Does it matter that neither of these shows directly connects with the franchise it’s supposedly extending? Not really—not if you know how the world works. In an age of entertainment megacorporations that refer to characters and stories as “properties,” it’s hard to make any sort of well-funded popular art unless it’s connected to an already established brand. Bates Motel and Hannibal offer proof that ingenuity can take what looks like a blatant cash grab and turn it into a work with its own personality, even a touch of soul. Norman and Hannibal have become “Norman” and “Hannibal” for the same reason Mad Men’s Dick Whitman became Don Draper: Sometimes the only way to be yourself is to pretend to be someone else.
Hannibal. Thursdays. NBC. 10 p.m.
Bates Motel. Mondays. A&E. 10 p.m.
*This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.