On paper, Hannibal might have been the least promising of the spate of horror-themed thriller series launched in early 2013. Thomas Harris’s sequel to The Silence of the Lambs (also called Hannibal) was largely controversial, while the prequel Hannibal Rising was largely reviled. From a qualitative standpoint, their film adaptations didn’t fare much better. A second adaptation of Red Dragon (the first being Manhunter, but you knew that) was entertaining enough but inessential. Did we really need a second Hannibal Lecter prequel, this one detailing the backstory of Lecter and Will Graham?

Reports from the production didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The showrunner, Bryan Fuller, was a critic’s darling with a tendency to create quirky, whimsical, short-lived cult classics such as Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies–not someone I would have thought a natural fit for the material. Further reports revealed that for every inspired piece of casting (Gina Torres) there was a painfully obvious one (Laurence Fishburne, Gillian Anderson) and one guaranteed to make you shake your head and say, “Wait…what?” (The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson, SNL’s Molly Shannon).

Meanwhile, we’d actually gotten a chance to see Hannibal’s trendmates, Bates Motel (another prequel series about a beloved horror villain) and The Following (another heavily violent series about FBI agents and serial killers). Neither were very good on a consistent basis, although both were commercial successes.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention that this show, which is about a cannibal, had been ordered by NBC, a broadcast network. As I sat down to watch the pilot episode, expectations were not very high.

And that’s how I became introduced to what, in the absence of Breaking Bad, is my new favorite TV drama.

Hannibal: "Apéritif"

“Apéritif” (Episode 1; Apr. 4, 2013)

An alcoholic beverage served before a meal (literally, “appetizer”)

This week on Hannibal: Special Agent Jack Crawford pulls Special Investigator Will Graham, a talented but somewhat unstable criminal profiler, out of the classroom and into the field to help solve a series of murders. But Crawford worries that he might have sent Graham too far into the heart of darkness, and arranges for him to be evaluated and monitored by the eminent psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But Lecter is hiding his own horrifying secret…

Will Graham stands in the foyer of a large suburban house, staring at a pair of corpses, an ugly bloodstained smeared across the wall. Slowly, methodically, he puts himself in the shoes, the mind of the killer, walking his way through the grisly murder, using the evidence to imagine what happened and explaining it to his FBI associates. “This is my design,” he says. They may not be the killer’s words, but that doesn’t matter. Graham knows what happened, and how, and why. He empathizes with the murderer. He’s afraid of that.

The thing that becomes immediately obvious within the first five minutes of Hannibal’s pilot episode is that the series’ title is, if not exactly wrong, at least…misleading. This isn’t Hannibal Lecter’s story, it’s Graham’s. In this way, it’s more in keeping with the first two Lecter novels than Harris’s later entries in the canon. Lecter–who isn’t even seen until twenty minutes into “Apéritif”–is an interesting, even fascinating character, but he’s not a natural protagonist. In a very real sense, Lecter’s legendary status has more to do with Anthony Hopkins than the actual character.

As this is Graham’s story, the show is bound to live or die on the merits of the actor playing him. Hugh Dancy’s version of the character is more obviously haunted and broken than either William Petersen’s or Edward Norton’s–he’s a bit showier than his predecessors, and while that may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s what the series needs.

Meanwhile, Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen is…well, I’ll be blunt here: he’s the best Lecter we’ve had so far, better than Brian Cox or even (gasp!) Anthony Hopkins. (We shall do our best to forget Gaspar What’s-His-Name from Hannibal Rising.) He does this by taking the opposite approach to Hopkins, by underplaying the character and emphasizing subtlety. This grounds the character and makes him more realistic, which helps towards his credibility for two reasons.

The first is that, as everyone knows, Lecter’s not “insane” by any meaningful definition of the word. He’s not a psychopath, he doesn’t conform to a profile. He does what he does because he’s, plain and simple, pure evil and thus, as far as we know, an impossibility in the real world (a point Thomas Harris never fails to make). And Mikkelsen’s performance makes the impossible man seem just as real as any other character on the show.

Or does it make him seem more real? The second reason Mikkelsen’s performance works has to do with the visual aesthetics of the show itself. It’s the look of Hannibal, not the acting, that’s over the top, something that seeps into every aspect of production design, from Lecter’s expensive tailored suits to the lavish set design to the color-saturated shots of meals…and of course, the brilliantly-composed tableaux of murdered corpses, a subject we’ll return to with the next episode.

Thanks to executive producer and house director David Slade, who’s worked both extensively in film (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) and television (Breaking Bad, Awake), Hannibal is simply the best-looking show on television. This is the sort of thing Dario Argento should be doing.

Meanwhile, Fuller’s script is brilliant and terrifying without sacrificing any of the quirk its author has become known for, setting up enough intriguing mysteries to keep the audience coming back for more while existing as a standalone piece of drama in its own right. I think my one criticism would be that it relies a bit too much on the audience’s familiarity with Hannibal Lecter to be 100% successful. But let’s face it, if a typical pilot episode is even 75% successful it’s beating the average by a good country mile. It may not be perfect, but “Apéritif” is still one of the finest pilots ever made.

★★★★☆

Hannibal: "Amuse-Bouche"

“Amuse-Bouche” (Episode 2; Apr. 11, 2013)

A small, bite-size hors d’œurvre (literally, “mouth amuser”)

This week on Hannibal: Will Graham assists the FBI in hunting down a killer who uses his victims’ living bodies as fertilizer for a mushroom colony–but the investigation is nearly derailed when notorious tabloid blogger Fredricka “Freddie” Lounds scoops the story. Meanwhile, Graham continues his sessions with Dr. Lecter, discussing the emotional aftermath of Garret Jacob Hobbs’s shooting and his obligation towards his daughter Abigail.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Monster of the Week.” Well, Hannibal has its own spin on that. I could call it the “Fucked-up Staged Murder Scene of the Week,” but that doesn’t really roll off the tongue. I’ll get back to you on that one. The point is that, just like The X-Files delivered a new kind of crazy monster with every installment, Hannibal treats the viewer with some sort of visually striking murder scene in every episode, and it’ll usually be something you wouldn’t think would ever be able to make it onto network television.

“Amuse-Bouche” offers you the sight of several human corpses entirely covered with mushrooms. You’re welcome. Pretty sure you weren’t planning to get much sleep tonight anyway.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn’t live up to the promise of that image. One problem that’s recurrent through the first half of the season is that some of the writers seem to think that, well, since two of the main characters are with the FBI, one of them’s played by Laurence Fishburne and the other’s playing a character first portrayed on screen by William Petersen, then Hannibal must be some kind of CSI-ish procedural.

They couldn’t be more wrong. Hannibal above all a character study and the weekly cases are there to reflect on the characters. It’s more Buffy than Law & Order or The X-Files, and the problem with “Amuse-Bouche”’s fungiphile is that he seems less like a thematic element than a plot device, someone whose only purpose is to introduce Freddie Lounds (who’s now a red-haired woman, not that I’m complaining) into the running plot and to strengthen the bond between Graham (and Lecter, to a lesser extent) and the still-comatose Abby Hobbs.

Which isn’t to say that “Amuse-Bouche” is a bad episode, just that its pleasures aren’t derived from the plot. There’s a lot of amusing by-play between crime scene investigator Beverly Katz and her underlings Jimmy Price and Brian Zeller (respectively played by Hetienne Park, Scott Thompson–yeah, that Scott Thompson–and Aaron Abrams). Fishburne gets some great boss-people-around moments, and this is where the chemistry between Mikkelsen and Dancy really takes off.

But it’s Lara Jean Chorostecki’s Freddie who really steals the show here, selling the character’s devious, calculating personality in every scene. Her scene with Mikkelsen (“You’ve been a very naughty girl, Miss Lounds”) is the highlight of the episode, and proves that Lounds’s sex change works beyond a simple attempt at cast diversity.

Still, following the procedural route turns out to be unsatisfying and is a clear dramatic dead-end. The production team is still working on figuring out exactly what Hannibal is and this could very well be why Fuller takes a stronger hand in the writing after the fourth or fifth episode: note how many midseason writing credits read, “Story by This Guy; teleplay by Bryan Fuller and That Guy.”

★★★☆☆

Next week: Garrett Jacob Hobbs is dead, but the Minnesota Shrike might not be, in “Potage”; “Œuf,” the episode that was pulled from the original broadcast run, featuring killer kids; and “Coquilles,” in which the murderer-of-the-week tries to turn his victims into angels, literally. Bon appetit!

Season 1 episode ranking:

  1. Apéritif (1.01)
  2. Amuse-Bouche (1.02)

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