and that said show was going to air on NBC of all places, my first thoughts were as follows:
2. What is with this prequel obsession everyone working at TV and film studios has?
3. How will this not be goddamned awful?
5. Is NBC just trying to sabotage itself?
So, you can imagine my surprise when the early reviews were good, including some from critics who don’t appear to be big horror fans (the folks at Grantland, HitFix and Entertainment Weekly are a few examples).
I checked out the pilot on a Sunday morning over breakfast and with a hangover (probably a bad time to be viewing some incredibly brutal violence). Afterwards, I can safely say that it’s astounding. The best part is that I can stand by that statement after having followed the successive episodes over the past seven weeks.
This show is genuinely, deeply disturbing, rather than a childish, pitiful and ultimately morally objectionable atrocity exhibition in the manner of Fox’s The Following or all of the Law and Order/CSI/Criminal Minds-type shows. It’s extremely well-written, in terms of plot construction and dialogue. The latter attribute makes sense, given that this is the work of Bryan Fuller, creator of the crafty and wonderfully morbid Pushing Daisies.
I do have to say that it’s quite bloody by any standard, not merely by that of a network show. Victims are strangled, shot, gutted, flayed, buried alive, beaten, neck-snapped, gutted and hideously mutilated. Yet despite it all, the gore is shown simply as the logical, biological consequence of violent actions, and it serves the story and character development. Although there are quite a few great jump-out-of-your-seat moments, the true scares are in the psychological chills and thrills of it all. That element is what ratchets the stakes up to a level that would be remarkable for any drama and is unprecedented for NBC in its current iteration.
Fans of the Hannibal Lecter novels and films (such as myself, minus the mediocre Hannibal and the cash-grab prequel, Hannibal Rising) will recognize this show’s true main character (title be damned), Will Graham – he’s the FBI profiler who serves as the protagonist of Red Dragon, the first Lecter story. He is here played by Hugh Dancy, an actor I don’t know well, but is insanely impressive at playing a man with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, an expert at assuming psychopaths’ states of mind and who can’t sleep without sweating through his sheets.
Primary sources of the show’s violence are the fantasy sequences, where Will acts out the atrocities of the killers he means to catch, which are always truly upsetting. He adopts literally dozens of lost dogs, but can’t hold a non-utilitarian conversation with most people. Something clearly happened in his life to give him this toxic gift. When face to face with a killer, he doesn’t run in and shoot like a typical badass TV cop – his hands shake and he fires ten rounds into the guy out of grievous rage, not any sense of righteousness.
You’ll notice how I haven’t even talked about Hannibal Lecter yet. The show has the same attitude – Lecter (played with consummate sly self-assurance Mads Mikkelsen) doesn’t show up until just past the pilot’s halfway point. This is an appropriate decision, because Lecter is better as an ever-present, but off-to-the-side force of curiosity and malevolence. In his few scenes during the pilot, we get quite a few suggestive shots of his proclivities (mostly of him eating and or cooking rare meat that looks delicious), but we don’t see him do anything remotely violent nor do we get any hints.
That changes eventually. Although, not until the end of the fifth episode. He is a killer – one of hideous brutality, who has no remorse for what he does. When he sees his own psychiatrist, she characterizes him as wearing a “human veil” (despite presumably not knowing about his extracurricular activities). However, for some reason, you can’t shake the feeling that he has a code of some sort.
At one point, shown in flashback, he is forced to kill someone. The victim comes close to finding out who he is, and we learn that unlike his other victims – he never took any of the organs. He never mutilated or tortured her. He is a complex man, one who respects intelligence in all its forms, and is in some ways deeply sad. But, the show – much like Silence of the Lambs, which is still the gold standard of the Hannibal Lecter stories – never lets you forget the monster that he is at his core. You want Will Graham to root him out, yet Hannibal spends much of the series helping Will catch other killers. He does this not solely to maintain his cover, but because he also respects Will’s intelligence, passion and empathy.
The peripheral characters aren’t quite as well-developed as Graham and Lecter, but that’s not much of a diss given how strong those leads are. Laurence Fishburne’s take on FBI agent Jack Crawford, who’s featured in Red Dragon and Lambs, is an intriguing hybrid of brains and machismo. Caroline Dhavernas’s Dr. Alana Bloom is a psychiatrist, who knows Will inside and out in a professional capacity, but refuses to view him as an objective curiosity. Freddie Lounds, the scruples-deficient tabloid crime reporter from Red Dragon, is here re-imagined as a relentless female crime blogger. The only arguable misstep is Hettienne Park as forensic expert Beverly Katz. Her dialogue leans too much on the sort of dry witticisms that are more the stuff of run-of-the-mill police procedurals than a show of true intelligence and substance like this. Even that’s a minor quibble, as she doesn’t disrupt the natural rhythms of the series.
I suppose the only worry I might have about Hannibal is where it can go and how it will get there. It’s not that it couldn’t survive getting to the place where it eventually goes in the existing Lecter canon – Hannibal behind bars, Will more damaged than ever before, maybe eventually even Clarice Starling and everything that comes after. As for me, as well as the show’s not excessively large but dedicated group of fans, I would be happy to see how this game plays out – especially if it continues over multiple seasons. But long games, unfortunately, don’t always pay off ratings-wise – even on premium or basic cable (let alone network television, and given NBC’s current disastrous status as a network under the stewardship of world-class dipshit Bob Greenblatt.) They’re going to need to chase the money wherever it is, not where it’s going to be or where the critical accolades are. That’s what causes plenty of great shows to die sad-ass deaths.
The reason I mention that is to underline how remarkable this series has already become and how much of a bummer it would be to lose it. Hannibal beats numerous odds and stands as that rarest of anomalies – a work of horror fiction that engages and stimulates your mind as much in the pit of your stomach as in the ends of your nerves. (And, if you’re Thought Pollution’s own Pete Rizzo, causes more than a few nightmares.)
Liam Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.