Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, American psychologist Harry Harlow experimented on monkeys. He wanted to quantify things that seemed unquantifiable: love, affection, attachment. And so he let baby rhesus monkeys be "raised" by mothers made of wire and mothers made of cloth. Some of these monkeys lived in a place called "the pit of despair." Harlow left the baby monkeys alone in this dark enclosure for up to a year after birth. They were controlled, observed and broken by a man who mainly wanted to see what would happen next.
Had Harlow been born a few decades later he would have been a perfect fit to helm a drama in the post-"Sopranos" TV landscape. The writer-producers driving the decisions on those shows are architects; they are puppeteers; they are gods. And, sometimes, they are scientists. Each scripted series on television is its own experiment, handcrafted Skinner boxes, painstakingly crafted for their characters to putter around in. Often, especially in the wake of "The Sopranos," the best dramas on television are those that experiment on those mundane questions of every day life like, "How do I navigate my family drama?" ("Sons of Anarchy") or "What kind of person do I want to be?" ("Mad Men") or "How do I balance work and family?" ("Boardwalk Empire") within the strictures of a Skinner box designed to be extremely foreign and untouchable to the modern audience. It’s through that lens of unfamiliarity that allows an audience to recognize their struggles in a new light and can be so effective that people who understand the fear of looming medical bills end up rooting for a meth-dealing murderer.
One show that has a particularly intriguing methodology when it comes to psychological experimentation is FX’s Cold War drama, "The Americans." Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields gave an interview in the wake of the show’s stellar second season in which they discussed the psychological choices made throughout the show’s writing process. Specifically they speak to the lack of the psychological awareness that their characters have, a choice they painstakingly maintain, going so far as to comb through scripts removing any examples of self-awareness that may exist within their universe.
This strategy contrasts intensely with that of a fellow sophomore drama, NBC’s "Hannibal," the latest adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novels detailing the tale of Hannibal Lecter. Helmed by Bryan Fuller ("Pushing Daisies"), it may be the ultimate psychological thriller, as it is populated almost entirely with professionals working the psychiatric field, and seems to be unfolding in a universe drawn entirely from their anxieties, cravings, addictions and visions. The vast majority of characters are not only frighteningly self-aware but have the background to understand the implications of discoveries made with that self-awareness.
On "The Americans," Philip, Elizabeth, Nina and Stan, all fall in line behind a cause larger than themselves. They invest in an unknown other, trust that they will be protected for their loyalty and put their love, their lives, their souls on the line for their faith. "The Americans" examines what it is to have faith in the unknowable, in an entity that forces you to abandon your identity in exchange for something to line up behind. It is a show about the burden of being just another brick in the wall, and, instead of finding yourself comforted by being a true believer, realizing that trading your soul may have been too high a cost. The characters sense that something troubling looms but have no real concept of the breadth of the inevitable fall to come.
Conversely, "Hannibal" delves into the cruelty of self-awareness. Where "The Americans" leaves the audience marveling at just how painful it is to be so broken down by a system you can’t clearly read your own heart, "Hannibal" leaves them realizing that there is little more terrifying than understanding yourself, understanding those around you, and still being powerless to affect change. The show also goes out of its way to make Will (and increasingly, his cohorts) understand explicitly just how painful life can be and that there is no higher power, institutional or otherwise, that can save them. But perhaps the cruelest thing "Hannibal" inflicts upon protagonist Will Graham is that with his intense awareness of his own mind as well as the minds of those around him, comes the unsettling knowledge that he himself is capable of monstrous things. And more than being just capable, he is aware of something deep inside him that yearns to catch, hurt, maim, kill Hannibal Lecter. The show has opened the door to a cavernous store of bloodlust in a man who feels every feeling tenfold, shoved him inside and imprisoned him there, to fester in his emotions and all that prized self-awareness.
However, perhaps the most horrifying psychological aspect of either show is the idea that not only are these the respective universes the characters are trapped in, but that this is their normal. This is par for the course. Hannibal Lecter is the devil at the crossroads, waiting to steal your soul. The world is a dangerous place populated with serial killer after serial killer that eats away at your very humanity. That is Will Graham’s reality. That is everyday workplace drama. That’s his normal. On "The Americans," all involved operate under conditions of extreme nationalism but more than that, because all of the adults are involved in extremely covert operations, they compartmentalize their emotions to a severe degree.
While most children eventually suspect their parents of not being exactly what they seem, for Henry and Paige Jennings, whatever they suspect could not be extreme enough to rival reality. For them, normal is parents having hushed conversations behind closed doors and secretive phone calls and equipment hidden throughout their home. If their parents are late picking them up, they, yes, may have gotten held up at work but their work entails not booking air travel for people but murder and espionage, risking everything for a homeland the children have never even laid eyes on. That’s their normal, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Each show is a laboratory experimenting on helpless creatures and seeing how well they weather what is thrown at them. Seeing if they survive without breaking and watching how they react to what they come to believe is normal. The difference then is that "The Americans" is populated with mice and "Hannibal" with monkeys. The mice run the maze, motivated only by the fact that there’s a task at hand, racing as fast as they can to find the cheese and begin again, slaves to those that built the maze. The monkeys perceive more, struggle more, feel more, aware that they are trapped yet just as helpless as their less enlightened cohorts. And we look on, entranced, watching them stumble through their realities and learning how to better navigate our own, grateful for our own piece of normal and as culpable as Harry Harlow ever was.