Hannibal is Horrifying and Completely Essential Viewing

I’m unfamiliar with the television work of writer Bryan Fuller, but I know his reputation. Every one of his television series–Dead Like Me for Showtime, Wonderfalls for Fox, and Pushing Daisies on ABC–have 2 things in common: 1. They have all been very short-lived (Dead and Daisies only had 2 seasons each, while Wonderfalls only had one) and 2. They’ve all been widely critically acclaimed, but popularly ignored outside of a devoted fanbase. And so it has been with Hannibal, Fuller’s new show on NBC–that has aired 9 episodes at the time of this writing–which hasn’t been given a renewal notice yet, even after all other shows on the network have.

It’ll be a darn shame if it isn’t renewed, because Hannibal is probably the best new show that premiered this year from where I stand, and is basically all the prestige and power of a premium cable drama, but somehow airing on broadcast TV.

I know you’re eye-rolling, because of the basic premise–the show is a look at a young Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) in his days as a secret cannibal long before he got to where he was at in The Silence of the Lambs–and I don’t blame you. Usually, that sort of thing spells disaster, and I was fully primed to hear how bad this show was.

But The A.V. Club’s review of the pilot was overwhelmingly positive and I thought, “Well, maybe this show’s better than I think.” So I downloaded the premiere off of iTunes for free, but didn’t get around to watching it until I got home from college, found out mutual friends of my sister and mine were urging us to watch it and so we gave it a shot.

It’s been a week since then and we’ve obsessively watched every episode. It’s horrifying, scary, almost hard to watch at times….but it is utterly, completely brilliant at the same dang time.

Part of the reason that is because , for the most part, Hannibal is not the main focus of this show. Rather, the focus is on Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), an FBI profiler who can completely empathize with serial killers,  meaning he can mentally recreate their crimes in very exacting detail and figure out their motives. Graham, in the first episode, is enlisted by Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to help catch a killer who’s been targeting college girls, working alongside Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), a noted psychiatrist. Bloom convinces Crawford to enlist Lecter’s help because he is–as in other versions–a noted and highly respected psychiatrist. Together, Graham and Lecter catch this first serial killer, setting off an insane chain of events that’s dominated the show thus far, with Hannibal possibly playing both sides of the fence in this and subsequent investigations.

Essentially, the show takes Hannibal Lecter, the pop culture icon, and sidelines him, preferring to only hint at (for the most part) his darker side. Key to making this work is Mikkelson’s approach to the character; best known for being the bad guy in the new Casino Royale, Mikkelson plays Hannibal as a highly reserved, carefully cold and controlled character, always aware of all angles of any given situation, and his native Danish accent (admittedly hard to understand at first) helps underscore the innate chilliness of the character.

The other actors are fantastic as well; Fishburne still exudes that leaderly gravitas and authority he brought more than a decade ago to Morpheus, but he also manages to show the character’s softer side and flesh him out, particularly in later episodes involving his wife Bella (Gina Torres, Fishburne’s actual wife). Dvarhnas manages to  make Bloom a grounded character; although she doesn’t really jell with the rest of the ensemble, she still does a good job. Lara Jean Choroteski probably has the most irritating role as Freddie Lounds, another Thomas Harris character reimagined as a tabloid blogger, but she’s still compelling.

And special mention must be given to Dancy, who does an Emmy-worthy job showing just what sort of toll thinking like a serial killer would do to a person; Will has been breaking down all season, and it’s been fascinating to watch in Dancy’s relevatory hands.

As I said, this is basically a cable show airing on NBC and that shows in the cinematography and writing. As to the former, this show is shot beautifully; the lighting is awesome, the scenery and sets are great, and the complex and creative ways corpses are displayed–which are also, obviously, very disturbing–are still gorgeous in their own way.

Now as for the writing: 1. Fuller has written or co-written the majority of the episodes aired so far; for a showrunner of a show on a major American network to be that involved is pretty rare, and the care shows; you really feel you’re getting a unified voice. 2. Fuller and the rest of the staff are obviously intent on reversing the typical scenario for a crime show; that is , they downplay the case-of-the-week element in favor of the relationships between the characters and the overarching story arcs. This is what no one else is doing and it’s a refreshing, wonderful thing to see.

Even the music, something I don’t normally register on a show, is great; the composer is a guy named Brian Reitzell and he’s great at using synths and other subliminal instruments to really ratchet up the tension and horror. The direction is also good, with people like David Slade (who directed the stunning pilot for the late, great Awake) and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who can make you feel like you’re watching a particularly good horror movie, expertly chopped up, rather than a TV show.

I could go on, but bottom line, this show is damn great. It’s hard to watch, it’s disturbing, it’s challenging…and it is absolutely necessary to view. If you think there are no good dramas anymore, check this out; you won’t be disappointed. And you might look at food a little different

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