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Ballers #102, “Raise Up” by Bryce Rudow

Hannibal #304, “Aperitivo” by Charles Bramesco

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Ballers #102, “Raise Up”

Raisin’ The Stakes

By Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)

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Pro wrestling’s greatest feat, greater than the most ridiculous body slams and the most death-defying acrobatics, is that it continually gets its fans to care about the two guys running around in the ring. For two straight hours, multiple times a week, year-round, the WWE finds a way to get people incredibly excited about watching what is essentially the same show over and over again.

And it’s because they, like all successful storytellers, are able to make you care about what’s at stake.

Whether it’s something as simple as the winner getting a pretty gold belt or something as cockamamie as a “Money in the Bank” match or a “Loser Leaves Town” match (in which the loser, presumably, would never wrestle again), the possible consequences of the match are always at the forefront.

Which brings us to episode 2 of Ballers, and the central problem with its attempt to mutate the Entourage formula into Sports Entourage: nothing’s at stake.

Though that isn’t entirely true. Ricky Jerret’s career is reaching its ‘make it or break it’ point, Vernon needs a new contract to pay his ever-growing stack of bills, and Spencer “The Rock” Strasrock just lent money he doesn’t have to a pro athlete who seems destined to be on 30 for 30‘s next installment of Broke. But it’s just that it’s hard to care about a self-indulgent wide-receiver#, a financially irresponsible COWBOYS player, and a guy who looks like The Rock but whose biggest concern is making sure the boss isn’t mad at him.

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Unlike the incomprehensible superstardom that was always on the line for Vinny Chase et al., Ballers put a glass ceiling on its main character by taking him out of the transcendent world of Hollywood and placing him in the frustratingly stagnant world of corporate America. It may involve client meetings at The Biltmore and occasional sports car pornography, but ultimately, SpenceRock’s life isn’t that much different than, as terribly miscast Omar Benson Miller says, ‘just another day at Tropical Chevrolet’.

Fortunately, next week’s episode is called “Move the Chains”, and the snippets they’ve released tease some real drama, so hopefully we’re finally done watching big men just lumber around for ~30 minutes. If not, I’m thinking about cashing in my “Money in the Bank” contract and demanding a “Loser Leaves Town” match.

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Hannibal #304, “Aperitivo”

Heart Skips A Beat

By Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse)

“Aperitivo” is the first misfit in a heretofore strong season of Hannibal, an episode that does a lot but accomplishes very little. It’s both a low-key downtempo episode — Mads Mikkelsen’s urbane serial killer is nowhere to be seen, a first in the show’s history — and a plot-driving episode, the sort that moves pieces into place for future events, sometimes at the cost of graceful storytelling. Showrunner Bryan Fuller attempts to shift into drive with this fourth installment of the third season, but ends up spinning his wheels by squandering his attentions on peripheral characters lacking a compelling story to tell.

Fuller doesn’t get off to a strong start, as he continues to undermine the dramatic impact of the massacre that ended last season’s “Mizumono”. He’s methodically undoing every challenge that the episode posed to the status quo, retconning deaths with the embarrassingly amateurish backtracking of a junior comic-book writer. Laurence Fishburne’s beloved Jack Crawford is alive, okay, Mason survived his snapped neck, whatever, fine. We already knew that. Except Alana Bloom is alive too, because why the hell not! And hey, so’s Dr. Chilton! Guess that bullet he took in the goddamn face, rendered with sickening fidelity in a flashback sequence that grand jetés over the line dividing grotesque art from gratuitous gore, turned out not to be so bad after all. The price of all this cowardly backtracking is a general sense of cheapness, but it certainly doesn’t help that Fuller hasn’t even reassembled all of these characters for an end justifying his unworthy means.

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With Joe Anderson’s cartoonish villain-voice succeeding the palpable, live-wire energy of Michael Pitt in season 2, Mason Verger wants revenge on Hannibal for taking off most of his face. (Another sequence that director Marc Jobst feels the need to show in stomach-churning detail.) And so he goes about assembling some manner of anti-Hannibal Superleague of Vengeance, approaching the good doctors Bloom and Chilton for assistance in his quest. “Former antagonists team up to kill Hannibal” isn’t a particularly original direction for this show to move in#, especially when that action only distracts from the meat of the show, Hannibal’s relationship with Will.

In the interest of fairness, the scene in which Mason and Dr. Chilton both gradually remove the cosmetics covering their hideous deformities hits a pleasing emotional note. Fuller’s writing acknowledges that by virtue of their shared victimhood at the hands of Hannibal, these two men connect on an unexpectedly intimate level. When Mason taunts Chilton with the come-on of, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” the homoerotic subtext isn’t incidental. (This is Hannibal, after all. Has homoerotic subtext ever been incidental?) They bond immediately on a primal, vulnerable level. Unfortunately, as far as this C-grade C-plot goes, that’s as affecting as it gets. For the most part, it’s a “great-hits baddies” type proposition, an unseasoned move unbefitting this normally confident, assured show.

The episode’s other deft strike of emotion comes from a retcon decidedly less sloppy. Crawford’s return to the show hasn’t been such an irritant because he hasn’t been revived in order to rehash old plotlines, but to resolve lasting ones. His decision to extricate himself from Will and Hannibal’s web of violent machinations is well-deserved and, more importantly, intelligent.# It enables him to find a sort of inner peace all too rare on Hannibal, as he makes good with his wife, only to bury her when her cancer takes the upper hand. It all happens a bit quickly, but then, pace has never been the show’s strength when many of its thrills come from Fuller’s tireless leaps between twists. It feels good to see a character that’s spent the show’s run on the side of good finding a little inner peace, even if it must come through the bitter potion of loss and the attendant melancholy.

Which is what makes the delectably bitchy note from Hannibal that Crawford receives at his wife’s burial all the more excruciating for Crawford. It’s a figurative knife to twist into Crawford’s back, now that the literal one has healed over. It’s Crawford’s tragic Godfather Part III moment, where he realizes that though he thinks he’s gotten all the closure he’ll need, there’s a gnawing desire inside of him. The disorganized, contradictory nature of emotions makes people on Hannibal do crazy things. It’s driven Will and Hannibal to do everything to one another short of smooch and continue to pine for the other’s caress (or whatever), and now it looks like it’s going to compel Crawford to re-enter this savage fray. Things cannot possibly go well for him.

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In Italian cuisine, an aperitivo is a small alcoholic beverage served prior to the meal in order to rustle up one’s appetite. Though the dining party might be hungry for dinner, the bitter drink won’t fill their stomach. It makes them want more, which is fine, because the main course will be out in no time. If Fuller does indeed have a more substantial follow-up to this episode, the bitter aftertaste is only amplified by the week’s wait between courses. Fuller’s got us snapping for the next morsel. He’s not going to deliver a feast for the fifth episode in a thirteen-part season, but it should be something we can really sink our teeth into.