Bon Appétit: A Season One Review of NBC’s Hannibal

This review may be a bit late--the season finale of Hannibal aired last week--but I’m going to do this anyway. It’s not often when a horror TV show succeeds in being consistently creepy during an entire season, and Hannibal does so with flying, blood-spattered colors. It also breathes disturbing new life into the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, which is an impressive feat unto itself. Connections to Thomas Harris’ horror novels aside, Hannibal is what TV shows like The Following and Criminal Minds should be, and what earlier shows such as Millennium and Profiler could have been.

Instead of treating serial killers as monster-of-the-week antagonists who are quickly foiled at the end of each episode, Hannibal uses its main characters--namely Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy)--to explore serial murder and the nature of identity and insanity on a more complex and nuanced level. In doing so, the series depicts Lecter in a manner similar to Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) in Dexter and Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar) in Profit. These are depictions of murderous protagonists who go about their lives across days, weeks and months, allowing audiences to observe how such insanity can remain undetected (or at least unproven, from a legal perspective) by the killers’ peers in what would otherwise appear to be mundane settings and situations. There are no quick resolutions or sudden revelations in Hannibal; each murder and subsequent investigation leads to more murders and investigations, with the characters unaware of the central evil that ties it all together. It’s unnerving stuff.

As the series’ creator, executive producer and occasional script writer, Bryan Fuller has done an amazing job at bringing Harris’ stories to life on the small screen. Even though the 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs popularized Hannibal Lecter among a wide audience, I think that Fuller’s Hannibal, which is mostly based on characters and situations from the 1981 novel Red Dragon, is the most intriguing and disturbing adaptation of Harris’ work. Not only do the scripts create a vivid, multi-layered world of characters, but the show’s direction maintains a grim, foreboding mood across the entire season, so much so that it almost feels like an ongoing miniseries instead of a sequence of individually produced episodes.

For as strong as the cast of Hannibal is, the series would have fallen apart without its two leads, Mikkelsen and Dancy. Mikkelsen’s interpretation of Lecter is a chilling one, without an ounce of camp that came to be associated with the character in his silver screen outings. Mikkelsen combines an outward appearance of resolute sanity and cultural sophistication with an aura of icy aloofness, making this version of Lecter impossible to completely understand and predict. Dancy provides the dramatic counterpoint to Mikkelsen’s Lecter, infusing the character of Will Graham with a burgeoning emotional imbalance that’s the side effect of his ability to “see” murders through the eyes of the serial killers who commit them. The cat-and-mouse game between Graham and Lecter is largely subliminal for most of the season, and Mikkelsen and Dancy’s performances keep it moving along with the right amounts of tension and symmetry until the season’s intense finale.

For as gruesome as it can be (a totem pole made from human body parts, murder victims transformed into musical instruments, etc.), I’m still surprised that Hannibal is on NBC and not on Showtime or some other cable channel. Regardless, I’m glad this show is on at all and will be coming back for a second season next year. This is what horror television should be, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Who's up for a game of Jenga?


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