NBC’s “Hannibal” debuted last Thursday to mediocre ratings. The network has enough faith in it that they’re re-running it tonight at 10 PM (9 PM Central). And you really should watch it. It’s absolutely fantastic.
If you told me last week that I’d be singing its enthusiastic praises after one episode, I would’ve mocked you and sent you on your way. After all, does the world really need more Hannibal Lecter?
Turns out, yes.
It’s easy to forget how great the nefarious psychiatrist/cannibal/serial killer can be. Overzealous producers did a fine job of diluting his iconic presence throughout the aughts, first with a serviceable-yet-forgettable 2001 sequel, followed by a lame and toothless retelling of Red Dragon, and finally with a terminally forgettable origin story, Hannibal Rising, that was so uninspired that it looked to have murdered the franchise dead in its tracks.
Enter producer Bryan Fuller, who saw precisely the right way to bring Thomas Harris’ macabre universe to network television. I wasn’t convinced that the subject matter would lend itself to serialized TV, but after one episode, I can hardly wait to see the direction in which things are headed. The character of Hannibal Lecter hasn’t exactly been absent from our collective psyches for very long, but it’s great to have him back.
“Hannibal” grabbed me from the very first frame. A special agent working freelance for the FBI, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) has the ability to enter crime scenes and reenact the grisly events through the eyes – and mind – of the murderer. This “gift” makes him a valuable asset to the FBI, while taking a severe emotional toll on his psyche. Graham feels as though he’s taking these lives as he reenacts the killings, and that has turned him into a tightly wound loner on the fringes of society. Halfway through the episode there’s an awkward line likening him to The Incredible Hulk, but it aptly sets up the notion of a monster lurking beneath Graham’s surface.
That’s the perfect note on which to introduce Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). The psychiatrist is brought into the fray to profile Graham while they’re working the trail of a vicious serial killer. Lecter is immediately intrigued by Graham’s abilities. He respects any mind as sharp as his own, but he also recognizes the potential darkness in Graham. As such, Lecter waltzes around their interactions with creepy bemusement and sinister undertones. Because, make no mistake, this man is still a monster.
“Hannibal” is as assured as any television pilot I’ve seen in recent memory. Fuller and NBC have spared no expense in giving this series a very impressive pedigree. Director David Slade is no stranger to playfully perverse topics, having previously helmed Hard Candy, a film mounted entirely on awkward tension and uncomfortable mind games. He brings that same kind of wit, energy and anxiety to the “Hannibal” pilot episode, delivering a confident and darkly humorous horror story that works as a crackling thriller and also as one of the best psychological mind games we’ve seen of late.
Our leads are fantastic. Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham with far more conflict than we’ve seen in previous iterations of the character. I remain fond of William Peterson’s grizzled and internalized take in Manhunter, but Dancy is so emotionally wrought by his “gift” that he’s immediately sympathetic. The show is smart enough to treat Graham’s profiling abilities as a curse, and so the dashing hero, so often intrinsic of these shows, is absent here. Instead our main character can’t seem to cope with the darkness he’s forced to endure daily.
Of course, Dr. Lecter is the star of the show, and Mads Mikkelsen proves to be the single most inspired casting choice this year. Even when Lecter’s dialogue borders on camp, it’s delivered with the kind of quiet menace that evokes a chill. The script is equally smart, offering numerous “signature” moments throughout its forty minutes. Mikkelsen seethes with quiet disgust while a hyper-emotional patient begs for a tissue and witnesses a gruesome murder with little more than bored indifference in his eyes. We glimpse the diabolical side of the character as well, but there’s perhaps nothing more memorable than the quietest moments of Lecter dining. Mikkelsen quietly enjoys these moments as much as Lecter savors his prey. And hell, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a series where our hero may or may not have been fed human flesh for breakfast.
There’s always a danger that this show will become another tired entry in network television police procedurals. But I doubt it. “Hannibal” is a bit of a pressure cooker, ratcheting up tension along with Graham’s psychological deterioration so steadily that it’s hard to imagine this will become “CSI: Cannibal” anytime soon. I expect we’ll see Graham and Lecter on the hunt for more serial killers as the series progresses, but “Hannibal” reminds us that network television doesn’t have to be safe and generic. This show is already taking big chances, and I only hope it pays off.
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