Hannibal debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
At once beautiful and languorous, Hannibal unfolds with the logic of a terrifying dream. Not a nightmare, per se, because the dream never grows to a place where the dreamer is physically threatened. But definitely one of those dreams where something is off, where the world has taken a turn for the worse, and everything looks to be at the wrong angle, and the dreamer simply cannot will himself awake. It’s going to have a healthy cult of detractors who will lob insults at it that it may very well deserve, insults like pretentious and slow-paced and poorly plotted. Those who are so inclined will find plot holes by the dozen in every single episode and mercilessly tear it apart on those grounds, ignoring the project’s dream logic ethos.
They’ll also be ignoring that Hannibal is terrific, that for the viewer who can get on its singular wavelength, it’s by far the best of this mini wave of serial killer dramas and easily the best (and most challenging) new network drama of the TV season. It is a show that begins where other procedurals end, a show about the psychic toll of death, about what it means to pursue that death and what it means to be haunted by it at every turn.
Watching Hannibal almost seems an entry-level course in what this show gets right that The Following and Bates Motel get wrong. Where The Following is possessed of glib, nihilistic violence that means nothing beyond pushing the plot forward, Hannibal understands that for every moment of gore, there must be just as much consideration of the effect that gore has on those who must suffer on without the deceased (and those tasked to find the killer). Where Bates Motel seems borderline obsessed at times with painting a portrayal of a budding serial killer and using the audience’s knowledge of what said killer will get up to in the near future, Hannibal makes Hannibal Lecter a supporting player in the show named after him, the ultimate bogeyman in a world that doesn’t lack for them. The title doesn’t refer to the show’s main character; it refers to the show’s mission statement: This is a fallen world, a world full of evil. The best we can do is root out the darkness.
At the show’s center is Will Graham, the protagonist of Red Dragon, the first Thomas Harris novel to feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter (and a novel filmed twice, once by Michael Mann and once by Brett Ratner). In that story, Harris sets up a back-story between Will, who is an FBI serial killer profiler in this adaptation, and Hannibal. The two worked together to catch violent killers by drawing up profiles of them, before Will realized that Dr. Lecter himself was a violent killer. Hannibal nearly killed Will, but he was eventually brought down and imprisoned, and in the course of Red Dragon, the two men try to ferret out another killer, this time separated by the bars of a jail cell. But for as often as Harris has plundered Hannibal Lecter’s life—including his adolescence and young adulthood—he has never told this particular story, this story of Will working with the man who is his greatest quarry, and it’s in that time period that Hannibal sets its tale. (Well, it’s within our modern time period, to be specific, as this is, like Bates, a prequel that updates everything to the modern day, having more fun playing around with the well-known iconography of previous works featuring the characters than slavishly devoting itself to them.)
This means that at its most basic level, Hannibal is a crime procedural with several overarching mysteries and character arcs. Yet it’s a crime procedural like few in memory, a crime procedural where the most striking violence is emotional, where the scars of the horrible crimes these people are made to witness resonate throughout the rest of their lives until they begin to realize that this life will tear them apart if they don’t develop coping mechanisms and quickly. It’s as if the team on a standard CBS procedural were suddenly composed of those who realized that each victim they investigated were a unique life suddenly snuffed out and that each serial killer locked up were another terrifying monster contained for only a short while before someone else out in the dark might pick up the torch.
In a weird way, the show Hannibal is most reminiscent of is HBO’s great, missed In Treatment. Like that show, many of the characters here are students of psychology or at least know a little about the field. Like that show, most of the best scenes here simply involve two people sitting in a room and just talking. And like that show, there’s every attempt made to paint with some degree of accuracy the mental states of all of the characters. (Fittingly, the character we get to know the least well in the five episodes sent to critics is Hannibal, for he must keep up the façade, that no one ever catch on to who he really is.) Unlike that show, however, there’s often a case-of-the-week (though the rhythm of these is always so unusual as to never become predictable), and there’s a healthy dose of horror and gore, though rarely as intense as on The Following. The horror here is more baroque, more sorrow-filled. These corpses once were people, and now they simply are not, and the weight of that begins to sit heavily on the audience after a while. (I usually watch screeners with multiple episodes straight through, but I often had to take breaks between episodes of this show, sometimes of a day or more.)
None of these ambitions would work if the cast, writers, and directors were not up to the task. Fortunately, in all three cases, they are. The cast is led by Hugh Dancy as Will, and he’s something of a revelation, playing the character as a rapidly fraying piece of rope that the FBI keeps tugging at because of his particular gift, a kind of unrestrained empathy that allows him to profile serial killers by effectively stepping into their shoes. The show spends so much time in Will’s point-of-view—particularly when he’s forcing himself to imagine how the murders must have happened—that it’s able to gradually suggest the toll this is taking on him via visuals almost as much as dialogue, as when a terrifying vision that haunts Will’s dreams, always stalking behind him, begins to crop up in the “real” world via hallucination. He’s supported by Caroline Dhavernas (best known as the lead from Wonderfalls) as Alona Bloom, a psychiatric consultant who acts as something of an angel on his shoulder, a part that simply wouldn’t work if not for the life Dhavernas infuses it with. Laurence Fishburne also pops up as Jack Crawford, who seems at first just Will’s cranky boss but gradually reveals himself to have some of the most moving, emotional material in the whole enterprise.
The show is also possessed of great recurring players and guest stars. The team of lab technicians Will finds himself forced to banter with (who all seem to genuinely care about his state of mind) includes former Kids In The Hall member Scott Thompson, Slings And Arrows vet Aaron Abrams, and the very entertaining Hetienne Park. Similarly, the characters are followed at all turns by a pesky true crime blogger named Freddie (a modern update of a tabloid journalist from the source material) played by Lara Jean Chorostecki with just the right amount of “what’s in this for me?” chutzpah. Going beyond those recurring players, the guest roster includes everyone from Eddie Izzard to Anna Chlumsky to Gina Torres, and that’s just in the episodes sent to critics. (Future installments will include none other than Gillian Anderson.)
The series’ production design and direction are frequently stunning as well, particularly the use of the color red to offset certain moments or costume pieces or rooms, the better to suggest the blood that pools inside all of the players. The direction team is led by David Slade—the man who directed the visually stunning pilot for Awake last season—and he brings his rich sense of color and style to this project as well, and he’s easily aided by directors of future episodes, who include Battlestar Galactica veteran Michael Rymer and Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (who created the lush visuals of Pan’s Labyrinth). There are images here, like a lone dog running down a road or cream swirling into coffee, that are at once hypnotic and arresting, filtering into the series' dream-like consciousness. Contributing scripts are luminaries of other genre shows, like Dexter’s Sara Colleton and Buffy’s David Fury, while the technical crew is full of terrific work, particularly from composer Brian Reitzell, whose music is omnipresent (as is so often the case on network dramas) but never overbearing, choosing its moments and using a kind of static-like fuzz to signify what’s going on in Will’s brain.
The series is very much guided by two men, however. The first is Hannibal himself, Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor perhaps best known for playing the heavy in Casino Royale and someone who can use his native accent to make Dr. Hannibal Lecter seem even more urbane and alien than he did when played by Anthony Hopkins, his most famous portrayer. Mikkelsen makes even the usual jokes about “having a friend over for dinner” seem more terrifying than cheeky, and he does a fine job of resuscitating a character that Hopkins’ increasing hamminess threatened to run into the ground. (His understated performance is much more in league with the sorts of quiet menace Brian Cox exuded in Manhunter, the original Red Dragon adaptation.)
But it’s the other man who gives this series its teeth. Since the beginning of his career, Bryan Fuller, who developed this show for television and receives partial script credit on four of the five episodes sent out, has been constantly fascinated by death. That’s cropped up in very quirky ways in some of his series—particularly Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, which treated death as just another damn thing everybody has to go through—but in Hannibal, it’s as if he’s funneled all of his propensity for quirk and clever dialogue into telling a straightforward, sorrowful, horrific story of a life lived on the edge. His dialogue is still frequently cutting, and there are laugh lines, but there are also stark, beautiful monologues about death’s role in our lives and the motivations of those Will chases down. The dialogue is often poetic, literary, and it’s shocking to hear this quality of talk in a genre that rarely contains such a thing.
There are elements that don’t work, and a laundry list of them could be made. The female characters could do with beefing up, and there are plot implausibilities here and there. (How, for instance, do certain things happen in the series’ third episode?) The series also has a vicious self-serious streak that threatens to bury it many times over. It’s also abundantly clear that this show is not particularly well-suited for NBC’s Thursday night lineup, if it’s well-suited for network TV at all. (Fortunately, the network has already sold it so well in foreign territories that it stands to make a profit even if it bombs.) Yet all of that falls away in the face of everything the series does accomplish. The serial killer genre has gotten glibber and sillier and more disappointing with every year, and the increasing sense that Hannibal had become a kind of “fun” bogeyman contributed to that in spades. What’s amazing is the way that Fuller and his colleagues have restored to the genre the sense of terror, the sense of sorrow, and the sense of weight that it had lost along the way. Hannibal isn’t perfect, but it is beautiful, and in its consideration of death, mortality, and the human mind, it flutters toward profundity.
- Join Molly Eichel in this space weekly for consideration of this series. All of it should air, because NBC has nothing left in the cupboard.