[Guest writer Kevin Klawitter (@KevinKlawitter) weighs in on what is, for my money, the best show currently running on broadcast TV. In a new TV golden age where cable earns all of the glory, NBC proves there may still be some life left in the network dinosaurs.]
When it was first announced that a TV show based on Thomas Harris’s beloved cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter was being made into a crime series on NBC, most people reacted with trepidation, if not outright derision. Who would be so silly as to take on a character made legendary on film by Anthony Hopkins and reduce him to TV scale? And on NBC? The network with the lowest ratings of all, and a reputation for cancelling anything with the slightest hint of promise? What kind of nut thought this up?
Well, that nut was none other than Bryan Fuller, and thanks to him, Hannibal has become not only one of the best shows on network TV, but one of the best shows on TV period, which makes the low ratings all the more frustrating. How can any number of generic CBS or Fox crime shows rake in the viewers, but something as dark, inspired, and beautiful as Hannibal barely scrape by? If more people were to take a chance and watch it, they’d see how brilliant it is: by taking on the conceit of telling the story of the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham prior to the events of the first book, Red Dragon, we are given a show unlike any other… a nightmarish look at the nature and impact of evil combined with very engaging crime procedural elements and one of the most fascinating character relationships (I refuse to use the term “bromance”) on TV.
When most people talk about how much they love the show, their praise almost inevitably centers around three different elements: the boundary-pushing violence, the visual style, and the performances of Hugh Dancy (in a remarkable performance as Graham) and Mads Mikkelsen. This is for very good reason, as they are the parts most likely to attract people to the show who haven’t yet seen it, but there are many other parts of the show worthy of praise as well. There is hardly an element of the show that can be called less than excellent.
The violence in the show is certainly striking, and distinct from other crime shows of this nature both in its beauty and in its impact. Gruesome deaths on crime and horror shows are a dime a dozen these days… The Following, The Blacklist, and Criminal Minds all deal with violent imagery week after week. But Hannibal’s crime scenes have a haunting beauty to them, whether it be a woman impaled on a stag head, a couple with their backs flayed out to look like angels, or in the most recent episode, a judge strung up and mutilated, with eyes removed and his brain and heart placed on the scales of justice in a statement about the empty heartlessness of the justice system. These “Death Tableaus” (as Bryan Fuller and co. refer to them) serve a dual purpose both of giving the show a distinctive “hook” among the genre, and paradoxically emphasizing the humanity of the victims. How often do you watch a crime show where the corpse only serves as a plot device? In Hannibal, you never forget that the murder victims are people whose losses are to be mourned.
One of the main reasons for that is the nature of the show’s other main character, Will Graham. Graham is both gifted and cursed with what the show calls “pure empathy”, the ability to step into the shoes of just about anybody and see the world through their eyes. This makes him incredibly gifted as a profiler, being able to project himself into the mind of a serial killer and mentally recreate their methods and motivations, but it also leads to mental and emotional instability, because once inside a killer’s head, he often has trouble getting back out.
That’s where Dr. Lecter comes in. Unlike previous incarnations of the character, this Lecter is still a practicing psychiatrist, hired by the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to be a grounding rod of sorts for Will. It’s just Crawford’s bad luck that the psychiatrist he sends Will to also happens to secretly be the most notorious serial killer around (not just in fiction, but in-universe, nicknamed “The Chesapeake Ripper”). The great Mads Mikkelsen gives us a Lecter who is completely distinct from the previous incarnations played by Bryan Cox and Anthony Hopkins (let us not speak of Gaspard Ulliel), playing him (in Mikkelsen’s own words) as a Lucifer figure, observing the humanity around him while not being able to connect, and that’s why his relationship with Will is so fascinating. Despite his lavish lifestyle and love of throwing suspiciously delicious dinner parties (almost all of the food he serves is at least implied to be made with human ingredients, one of many sources of black comedy in the show) Lecter has difficulty building relationships with others, not in the least because as a sociopath, he cannot empathize. But once he meets Will, he can’t help but be drawn to him, as Will’s overwhelming empathy and potential ability to see things from Hannibal’s perspective makes friendship a genuine possibility. But a serial killer being friends with an FBI profiler carries risks, and as Will gets closer to the truth Lecter is forced to cut his losses and [SEASON 1 SPOILERS!] by the end of the first season, Will is the one behind bars, framed for the murders committed by Hannibal.
Surrounding Will and Hannibal are a game cast of supporting players, most prominently Jack Crawford. As Jack, Laurence Fishburne does some of his best work in years, playing him as a man whose hardass tendencies serve as a cover for the fact that his hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper has left him damaged and dangerously obsessed with finding the killer to the detriment of those around him (we get a sense of this obsession and what may happen if he is driven to far in the Season 1 episodes Entrée and Sorbet as well as the shockingly violent flash-forward that opens Season 2). When the screw is tightened even further by Will’s increasing instability as well as the impending cancer death of his wife Bella (Gina Torres, incredibly affecting in a small role), Crawford himself finds himself going to Lecter for guidance, and the irony is palpable. We also have a large number of strong female characters, including Caroline Dhavernas (of the brief but late-lamented Wonderfalls) as Dr. Alana Bloom, the compassionate and caring friend of Will and Hannibal who finds herself caught between them, Hettienne Park (Young Adult) as Beverly Katz, the spunky lab technician who in some ways understands Will better than anybody else, Lara Jean Chorostecki (TV’s Copper and Camelot) as the unethical crime blogger Freddie Lounds, and Gillian Anderson as Bedelia Du Maurier, Hannibal Lecter’s therapist who knows that her patient is hiding something dark, but doesn’t quite know what it is. Her scenes opposite Mads Mikkelsen, especially in Season 2, are among the tensest in the series, very impressive when you consider that they consist almost entirely of two people talking.
They’re helped a lot by Bryan Fuller’s dialogue. Using the somewhat purple stylings of Red Dragon as a jumping-off point (and lifting many passages of dialogue from the book wholesale), we’re given a characters with a lot of dialogue that is inventive, flowery and smart, and it’s the intelligence of the characters that I find incredibly refreshing. Unlike many shows, Hannibal actually allows its characters to be as intelligent as people who work for the FBI are expected to be. With the possible exception of Raul (Law and Order: SVU) Esparza’s entertainingly dense and jerky Dr. Chilton, nobody in the show ever behaves like an idiot simply because the plot requires them to. They’re always thoughtful and articulate, even when reciting dialogue by Bryan Fuller and his writers that at times straddles the line between poetic and pretentious. It fits in wonderfully, though, with the heightened, nightmarish tone and Fincher-esque visual style provided by Fuller and his team of fantastic directors, including David Slade, Michael Rymer, James Foley, Tim Hunter, and Guillermo Navarro (the visceral undertones of Brian Reitzell’s scoring also go a long way towards enhancing the horror, and contrasts beautifully with the classical compositions played by Lecter).
There are some complaints you can make about the show… the use of a “killer of the week” format for some episodes (something I’ve never considered bad… what’s wrong with self-contained stories?), the outlandish nature of some of the deaths, and some inside jokes and bits of dialogue from Hannibal that border on being just a bit too cute for their own good (what the online fandom would call “LOUDLY IMPLIED CANNIBALISM”), but they can be explained by the show running on dream logic. A gritty, realistic crime drama this ain’t… it’s something much more interesting. To again paraphrase Mads Mikkelsen, it plays as a sort of shared dream space, serving simultaneously as Hannibal Lecter’s dream and Will Graham’s nightmare.
Hannibal airs Friday nights and it should be in your DVR rotation. You can purchase the first season at Amazon or your favorite place to download TV shows and the first three episodes of the current season are available free at NBC.com until May 23.