Published on March 2nd, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls0
Why Hannibal Deserves Your Attention
It would be easy to write off NBC’s Hannibal, which starts its second season on February 28th, as nothing more than yet another desperate plea by a desperate network to buy viewers with little more than name-brand recognition. But a funny thing happened over the course of season one — the series found its footing with grotesque depictions of crime scenes involving mutilations and a strong focus on the relationships between the characters at the centre of the show. Those who started as skeptics found themselves won over when the credits rolled at the end of episode thirteen; it’s clear that show runner Bryan Fuller and his team know exactly the story they want to tell, and that they are blazing ahead on their own path as if they have nothing to lose. Hannibal dares to go to the extremes of network television limitations, and it does so with unblinking artistic integrity and a strong stomach. The show is an against-all-odds success story in terms of its quality, but its lifeline may be cut drastically short if it fails to snare many new viewers this season.
The character of Hannibal Lecter, played in this iteration by the sublime Mads Mikkelsen, first appeared in author Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, which itself served as the basis for Michael Mann’s film Manhunter (with Brian Cox in the Lecter role). Lecter appeared again in Harris’ follow-up novel, The Silence of the Lambs, which was adapted into a blockbuster film that resulted in an Oscar win for Anthony Hopkins, who bit into the part and chewed up every scene with gleeful abandon. To say Hopkins crafted the definitive version of Lecter wouldn’t be an outlandish statement; Hopkins became so identified with the character that audiences lapped up 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon despite questionable screenplays and Hopkins’ tendency to ham it up. A feeble attempt at an origin story — Hannibal Rises — was greeted with indifference from audiences and critics alike, and it seemed as if the pop culture world was done with the famous cannibal. And then along came Bryan Fuller, the creator of odd and short-lived series like Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, who suggested going back to the well yet again, but this time with a prequel series to Red Dragon that would reveal how Lecter eventually wound up behind bars.
Despite being called Hannibal, the titular character actually shares co-headlining credit with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a criminal profiler with a unique ability to empathize with serial killers. Graham can visualize himself in the shoes of the killers he chases, and has an insight into each killer’s process (or, as Graham calls it, their “design”). It’s through this empathy that he’s able to lead his boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), to catching the criminals, but Graham’s own emotional and mental state deteriorates bit by bit with each new case. It’s as if Graham’s got an energy bar and each time he enters into one of his ‘visions’ it lowers his levels and weakens his mind. Crawford wants to keep Graham running as his own super-powered crime solver as long as possible, so he orders Graham to regular sessions with psychiatrist Lecter to help ease the emotional load on his mind. Graham is at times simply a pawn in Crawford’s chessboard of justice, and he unwittingly becomes a lab rat in Lecter’s own psychological experiments. That delicate balance defines the thematic core of Hannibal, and to get into any detail of the extremes Crawford and Lecter go to in order to keep Graham at their bidding would be to spoil the grisly and grotesque thrills of the series.
Because the series utilizes characters with such rich literary backstory it would be easy for the writers to pile up wink after wink, acknowledging the dramatic irony at play with the audience’s familiarity with Lecter’s true cannibalistic self. Hannibal gets those nods in for sure — each of Lecter’s dinner scenes take on a different level because we know what his guests are actually eating — but it rises above franchise fan service through a highly-stylized world where the crimes are gruesome and the psychological effects of horrific atrocities do not go unrealized. Will Graham’s ability to empathize with the perpetrators he’s chasing is the FBI’s greatest asset but Graham’s own damnation; the series stands out from the other adaptations of Harris’ work partially due to Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of Graham and his own descent into madness. Hannibal and Crawford are Graham’s biggest enablers, each using their personal connection to push Graham to the edge of sanity, but it’s Hannibal’s calmness and cold charm that remains the most delectably depraved aspect of the show.
From a solely visual standpoint, Hannibal is perhaps the most truly cinematic offering on the small screen. HBO’s True Detective is (deservedly) garnering a lot of praise and attention, but it’s a show whose style and grotesque discussions and depictions of murder pales in comparison to the season of Hannibal that came before it. The use of antlers in the murder scene in the first episode of True Detective is unnerving in its own way, but Hannibal used that visual motif to even more shocking and disgusting applications numerous times over the course of the first season.
The stylization of Hannibal’s imagery is stark and perversely beautiful in its own way. It isn’t enough for Fuller and his creative team to shock you with horrendous images, they want to create pictures that will stick in your mind and haunt your dreams. The violence and gore push the limits of network television and rival the content of TV-MA programs airing on cable channels. It’s not gory for the sake of being shocking, it’s extreme to illustrate the psychotic depths of the individuals tormenting Will Graham’s mind. Combined with the saturated color palette, carefully composed frames and dynamic camera moves, Hannibal has a big-screen look that rivals the photographic artistry of most major motion pictures.
A regular complaint about the series to date is that it too often resorts to ‘killer of the week’ storylines that are sometimes dreadfully undercooked. The show is largely a procedural/serialized hybrid, but faithful viewers are rewarded with the real delights found in the ongoing relationships between the central three characters. The procedural aspects are understandable because they’re easy for casual viewers to pick up and the general television-watching audience seems to love shows like CSI. But Hannibal is simply too smart and too expertly constructed to be written off as simply ‘The Mentalist with blood.’
The first season of Hannibal can be found on iTunes or for purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray, and promos for the new batch of episodes reveal quite a bit of information that would spoil the experience for new viewers. One can only hope that season two of Hannibal ratchets up the tension in the Lecter/Graham/Crawford dynamic and that a larger audience catches on to the series’ deliciously decadent thrills. Current fans or the cannibal-curious are advised to tune in and help keep Fuller and his team employed to keep these old characters feeling fresh and new. It would be a terrible disservice to lovers of quality television if the show were cancelled due to viewer apathy, especially when the show itself is blazing a new trail for cinematic aspirations on the small screen. Now, who’s hungry?