Hannibal Lecter is a character who is ingrained in pop culture. Anthony Hopkins’ chilling performance as film’s most infamous cannibal in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs is iconic, and Lecter has overshadowed the stories from which he originates. His first appearance was in Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, and Harris later wrotetwo sequels and a prequel, all of which have been mined for film adaptations, the most recent of which was 2007’s poorly received Hannibal Rising. So why would someone decide that now was the time to revive the character for a TV show? I can’t explain the decision but NBC’s Hannibal, now airing on Thursdays at 10 p.m., offers a self-assured, fresh take on the character.
Leading the charge on this new show is Brian Fuller, who has previously created shows such as Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies. Fuller is presumably adapting Harris’ first novel, although none of the specific plot points from that story have appeared yet. Instead, the show begins with the initial meeting between Lecter and Will Graham, the hero of the novel. At this point, Lecter is living as a psychologist whose darker tendencies are unknown. He is called in by the FBI to maintain the mental health of Graham, a criminal profiler who succeeds because of his ability to empathize with and understand the serial killers he is attempting to capture.
As both the show’s name and that description suggest, this is an extremely dark show. Gruesome, even. But it explores that darkness in an artful way, and avoids using violence as exploitation. Many of the crime procedurals on the air right now use violent crime as an easy way to make their stories seem edgy, but they rarely engage with that violence on any level beyond shock value. Hannibal subverts that trope by being a show primarily about the aftermath of killing rather than about the killing itself. The main connective thread between episodes is the effect that working so close to such violence has on Graham. That way, the show is focused more on character development than a crime-of-the-week structure, and as such is able to give proper weight to the horrible events it depicts.
I’m not trying to argue that the standard crime procedural is inherently flawed. Shows like Bones and Criminal Minds adhere to certain formulas. Those formulas inevitably make the violence they depict seem rote. Hannibal, however, has loftier ambitions, as indicated by its thematic strength. It feels more like a cable drama than most network shows. The 1st season will have 13 episodes; the pilot is directed by well-known film director David Slade. Slade’s direction gets the series off to a great start, filling the screen with haunting imagery. One of the show’s novel stylistic quirks is the way it depicts the process by which Graham examines a crime scene. Graham imagines himself as the killer, and the show illustrates that by depicting its hero committing the very crimes he tries to prevent, which helps enhance the show’s surreal atmosphere.
Equally impressive to the show’s technical aspects is the acting showcased within. Hugh Dancy gives a soulful performance as Graham, particularly in the way he is able to show all of the psychological damage Graham silently endures. The pilot suggests that Graham is on the autism spectrum, but Dancy doesn’t rely on physical tics for his performance. He crafts a character who is believably troubled without going over the top. Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known as a Bond villain, Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale, has the difficult task of playing Lecter. Mikkelsen’s ingenious response to the challenge of living up to Hopkins’ performance is to play the role quietly. His Lecter has a sense of understated menace, a choice that makes sense when you consider that this character needs to remain interesting for multiple seasons, rather than a single movie.
The only serious complaint I have in the show’s early going revolves around a single problematic character. The second episode introduces Freddie Lounds, played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, a tabloid blogger who specializes in crime scene reporting. She is basically just a nosy journalist stock character, someone who interferes with police investigations in pursuit of the all-important story. I’ve always been annoyed by the laziness of that archetype, because it is a cheap way to create more obstacles for the protagonist, and this particular instance is no better. Hopefully future episodes will make an effort to deepen her character, perhaps by giving her something more to do than stand in the story’s way.
I wouldn’t say Hannibal is a show for everyone. Its unique brand of melancholic darkness will probably be off-putting to some. But if it does sound appealing to you, I urge you to catch up. The first three episodes are available on Hulu at the moment, and this is the type of show that needs all of the support it can get if it’s going to survive on network television. And it seems like future seasons will be even stronger. If the show is successful, it will be able to play out the revelation of Lecter’s true identity slowly, which should be fascinating. Even if you are already familiar with the story, Hannibal is worth experiencing, because it spins that story in a new, modern direction.