Is Hannibal the best network TV series in years?

Feature Laura Akers 12 Feb 2014 - 07:00

Laura thinks so, and urges viewers to catch up with Hannibal's complex, exquisite first season before its return...

Last year, I reviewed Hannibal for Den of Geek, and like any writer, posted links to my articles on my Facebook page for my friends. Unlike any other series I’ve written and shared about, Hannibal is the one that friends ask me about the most, usually something along the lines of “How can you watch something so gruesome?”

To be fair, I have to admit that what most people call gore - by which they really just mean “blood and guts” - has never bothered me. As a child, I fell in love with the late 70s television show Quincy, and for years wanted to be forensic pathologist; I saw my first autopsy at thirteen. And I can watch open-heart surgery while eating a medium-rare steak. So really, maybe I’m not the best judge of what others might consider “gruesome.”

Unfortunately, the well-deserved reputation of the Thomas Harris Hannibal franchise has meant a lot of people avoiding the television show that ran last spring and may keep them from seeing its return at the end of this month. And that would be a shame since NBC’s Hannibal is the best broadcast network series in years. And I say that believing that the past decade has been something of a golden age of scripted television.

What makes Hannibal so incredible is something that we haven’t seen on broadcast television since the first season of Twin Peaks: a show with a vision that is both clear and compelling. And while that vision occasionally nods to the best known of the Harris stories, Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs, the television show that Bryan Fuller brings us is very much his own.

The style of the piece is distinct, from the quick-moving skies to the mood-lit dining rooms, but it is not monochromatic. The story is very much about the mental states of everyone from the fairly ordinary but still interesting Dr. Alana Bloom to the full-blown psychosis (?) of the protagonist, Will Graham. Fuller uses stark shifts in lighting, cinematography, and sound to move us in and out of everything from the pedestrian conversation of the crime scene analysts to the murderous fugue state of the show’s killers. Unlike Lynch, however, Fuller manages to restrain himself. While his style is marked, it is almost never allowed (the elk-visions can sometimes be a touch too much) to obscure the story.

And that’s a very good thing because the writing is excellent. Hannibal was, like the less successful Dracula, allowed to skip the pilot process and so seems to have the faith of NBC. But while the network did, in fact, give the show a second series, one senses that Fuller believed his show would not be so lucky, and thus gave us a first series which tells a complete and really involving story.

The primary plot takes place before Harris’ novel (and the film) Red Dragon, before the world knows what Hannibal Lector is. Instead, Fuller’s story focuses on the potential madness of the man who will initially capture Lector, FBI Special Agent Will Graham (played here by Hugh Dancy). Graham is gifted/curse with “pure empathy,” the ability to put himself into the shoes of anyone, even the most evil and brutal of predators. While he has done fieldwork in behavioural analysis, this has taken a tremendous emotional toll on him, and he has semi-retired to a teaching post for the agency. But when a string of killings leaves him at his wit’s end, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, approaches Dr. Alana Bloom, a colleague of Graham’s to ask if she thinks the empathic Graham is stable enough to return to the field to help him solve the serial murders.

When Bloom tells Crawford that Graham is still struggling too much to help, Crawford insists he’ll use him anyway, but capitulates to bringing in a psychiatrist to keep an eye on Graham while he’s in the field. Bloom recommends her former colleague, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). The rest of the series focuses on the complicated and fascinating relationship between a man who sees everything except the evil right beside him, and the subtly psychopathic doctor for whom he is both friend and ultimate victim - all while they seek out the identity of a number of serial killers, any of whom may or may not be Lecter, and Graham goes slowly mad under the ministrations of his mental guardian.

But it’s not the premise that is so successful; it’s the flawless execution. Whether we’re talking about the visual style, the scripted dialogue, or the performances, Fuller is in full command. His mastery is evident in virtually every artistic choice on Hannibal.

Because Lecter’s true nature is still unknown in this universe, he operates differently. He’s still Hannibal, that connoisseur of all the best that humanity offers (and punisher of the rude). But he moves and murders freely in the world of psychiatric professionals, and thus Fuller has Mikkelsen play the character not like Anthony Hopkins’ scenery-chewing trickster, but with such subtlety that you’re afraid to look away for a moment. His beautifully written lines and split-second glances communicate so much that to miss even one can mean losing important pieces of the plot.

The same is true of practically everything about the show. There are important clues in how characters sit in relation to each other, the choice of music, and how kitchens are decorated. In fact, sometimes, it seems that there is so much to see that we, like Will, start to doubt our own eyes and ears. Scene after scene shows Hannibal in his kitchen, preparing meal after meal, all using suspicious cuts of meat (and fair cop here, this is where we get the majority of the gore—Lector carving up lungs, livers, etc.). Should we recoil as we see virtually every character sit down to one of Hannibal’s carefully cultivated feasts? Or are we assuming too much about these culinary treats?

Either way, Fuller tells a fascinating tale in this first series, but it’s not going to be for everyone. Like Lecter’s own tastes, Hannibal requires a certain level of sophistication. Yes, there’s gore, but for the most part, Fuller presents it almost as Scorsese would. It’s displayed with a cinematic richness that almost makes you forget what you’re looking at because of its beauty. This is not for the Friday the 13th crowd. In films of those genres, the blood and guts are part-and-parcel of why people go. Here, however, there’s nothing of the gratuitous or the gaudy. Instead, we are made to see things, as Graham does, through the eyes of those for whom blood and body have very different meanings.

But what Hannibal also requires is a willingness to explore those ways of looking at the world. It challenges the viewer constantly to keep up, to use our own empathy, even when we’re looking through the eyes of the mad and the murderous. Like one of Lecter’s meals, this is not a show for the passive consumer or one with pedestrian tastes. Hannibal is a visual and narrative feast, one entirely too tasty to miss.

Hannibal season two starts on NBC on Friday the 28th of February. Read Laura's spoiler-filled Hannibal season one reviews, here.

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Comparing this to the mighty Twin Peaks is like 1D thinking they're bigger than The Beatles. Its a decent show but its certainly not the best thing on our TV screens since 1990.

The key word is "network" here. And in that context the author is absolutely correct. I honestly can't remember the last time I was so excited by a network tv series.

Based on this piece, I'm going to give it a shot. Would be surprised if it surpassed Breaking Bad for me, but as you say... network. Actually in that case my barometer (even if it's a different genre) is Arrested Development.

Well said - I bloody loved the show and found the cookery scenes to be more beautiful and exquisite than any cooking show. Roll on Season Two.

I'm halfway through the show at the moment and am absolutely loving it!

To answer the question; No it's not...

That's that settled then.

I've watched most of the first season. My wife loves it, but I can't seem to get on with it. Like, it's good and it's better than most stuff on TV, and you can tell a lot of work has gone into it, but I find it so boring. I really want to like it more but I just don't find it that interesting. Great article, though!

I actually gave this show a go after author of this article recommended it to me. And I have to agree with a lot that she says here. Hannibal is a masterclass in moodesetting. The show is very dark and even sometimes disturbing, I myself was amazed at some of the things they show and I'm a hardcore HBOviewer. However what really turned me off from the show and the reason why I only watched three episodes is it's very procedural nature. The arc is very compelling but is often overshadowed by the unsually very boring "killer of the week" cases which add absolutely nothing to the main narrative, Is it the best network show in years? Um...no that's definitely Fringe. Is it one of the best? As far as I'm uptodate on network tv I'd definitely say so. But...I think it would've been much better had it ended up on one of the cable channels.

You know, I was going to talk about this issue in the article, but decided not to. So I will say it here: the first few episodes are procedural in nature, but that quickly falls away and the focus becomes just the key players in the the main storyline. They continue to do some cases, but most of them exist really to shed light on what is happening between Will and Hannibal.

Friday Night Lights was an awesome network series, and Scandal is great trash. But nothing has been quite as distinctively stylish or dark from Episode 1 as Hannibal.

I don't think it was perfect though. The first half of the season threatened to be a bit too stylish for it's own good, and take itself too seriously. The plots were sometimes a bit convenient and the dialogue a bit ripe and on-the-nose - this was especially true of the pulled episode 'Oeuf' which had a really over-the-top, unbelievable murder storyline, and cringe-worthy attempts to signpost some 'big themes' of family in the sub-plots. The second half of the season which further developed Will's psychosis and relationship with Hannibal was a lot more focussed and assured. I'm really looking forward to the next season.

Eh. It was just a comparison and Twin Peaks' influence is pretty clear here, which is a testament to how forward thinking and distinctive that show still is. He never said it was the best show ever since, just that it's one of the best NETWORK shows in years, particularly in terms of its style.

And for what it's worth, as awesome as it was, Twin Peaks was not a perfect show. Hannibal has certainly got more 'legs'.

I fully agree with this article. I am a huge fan of the first season - the atmosphere, sense of impending doom (perhaps imagined by us, the viewer, as we know the monster Hannibal is, more than the show itself), the performances, the style. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can understand why some wouldn't - it can be a little slow, some people have complained the actors mumble (I just turn the TV up loud!) and if it doesn't click with you, I can get people being put off. For me, though - bring on season two - it can't come quickly enough.

Yes. One of the few network dramas I watch, and the only one that I really care about watching.

It is a wonderful series. I'm a massive Thomas Harris fan and was ready to hate it with a passion but I cannot get enough of it. It references Red Dragon beautifully in the script (even using a quote from Thomas Harris himself) and captures the character of Hannibal perfectly

Mads' wardrobe is impeccably stylish and worth the watch alone

Loved season 1, definitely my kinda show, was telling everyone about it at the time. Season 2 looks set to maintain the standard. I feel like the writing in True Detective appeals to me a little more though...hard to tell as it's only 4 episodes in, but I think it might become my favourite (current) TV show

Yep it is the best network drama for quite some time, only The Good Wife comes close. Both shows have the quality writing and acting you expect in cable series. I'm still surprised Hannibal airs on NBC but I'm glad it lives for now at least.

Couldnt agree more, both those shows are great for different reasons. I love the feel of Hannibal, and respect the fearlessness of not doing the usual mainstream monster-of-the-week thing and embracing the uneasiness of the material.

The final scene in the final episode of season 1 sent a shiver down my spine!

Completely agree, the way its filmed - the increasing madness and dream-like (well nightmarish) scenes we get with Will are just something you don't see in your average procedural crime show.

....and for once, immaculate casting with every actor perfectly suited to the character.

Of course. For a split second there, I missed that key word and was appalled by the writer's exaggeration, cause it is great, but nowhere near several of the greatest - it's enough to mention Breaking Bad as undisputed no 1, but also Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos... And then I saw the key word and realised it was my mistake. :)

For a split second there, I missed that key word (''network'') and was appalled by the writer's exaggeration, cause it is great, but nowhere near several of the greatest - it's enough to mention Breaking Bad as undisputed no 1, but also Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos... And then I saw the word ''network'' and realised it was my mistake. :)

Agreed. I just restarted Twin Peaks a few weeks ago, and the first season is still fun, dark and quirky (the second decidedly less so) in retrospect. But it is not without its flaws (Lynch's overindulgence being the biggest for me). But what my comparison is getting at is the auteur quality of both series--the clear guiding hand that goes well beyond just showrunner. And both have that in spades.

And yes, I think Lynch largely painted himself into a bit of a corner by the end of the first season (he probably ALSO didn't expect to get a second one), where Fuller has set himself up quite well for a second. Legs, indeed.

Does 'network' status preclude UK free to view series. If not then I think Broadchurch was better.

It's a work of art really, everything from the precision of Hannibals kitchen to the theatricality of the murders to the slow almost rhythmic dialogue. It creeps along slowly and surely, giving a great contrast to Graham's evermore ragged mental state.

I sincerely hope Hannibal ends and is not ended, if you catch my drift.

I hope its vision is fulfilled and ratings don't lead it to the axe. Even if it becomes less popular over the years, I want to see it through to the end.

I have season 1 set aside to rewatch at some point between now and the end of the month. Absolutely love Hannibal.

I think the plan is for 7 seasons but I just can't see it lasting that long. Extreme gore and a very intelligent plot inevitably means low ratings. Combined with what I assume is a generous budget, I'm surprised we're even getting a 2nd season.

You know, I've been thinking about this and I find it strange that Hannibal is seen as so problematic for its gore, but Criminal Minds (which I love) is not--despite its graphic and truly horrific cruelty. You don't see everything on screen, mind you, but just the idea of what the killers on that show do is far more disturbing...

Which is probably why my hubby will occasionally get sucked into Hannibal despite the guts on displayed, but can't even LISTEN to Criminal Minds playing in the background.

Sorry if you couldn't get into it, but don't feel bad about it. I loved the show, and I'm awaiting season 2, but it is not a typical network show, and it isn't going to appeal to everyone.

At least you took the time to watch most of the episodes. Try to give the entire season a watch; maybe the later episodes will work for you. If not, hell, no problem--you gave it a shot.

It's certainly very different from what's on network television (in particular, the big four). I'm amazed that it airs on NBC, since it's a pretty dark show (but damned good). While some have called for it to go to cable, I have to disagree.

Same here--I was ready to tear it a new one, but from the opening scene in the first episode, I was hooked. I'm very glad that I was wrong.
Even better, watching the series made me go and re-read RED DRAGON.

I think the author means one of the 3 main networks in America, aka NBC/CBS/ABC. The shows you mentioned are not on the 3 main "broadcast" networks.

It's is, indeed, the best network show in ages...The good thing is that, even if the ratings not go well in this season, like happened on the first, many other companies, like Amazon, Netflix and Cable Networks, promissed to pick the production of the show, because it shares with House of Cards the title of PREMIERE OF 2013

Boring show. So overrated.

If I recall this was the reason Mandy Patinkin left Criminal Minds as it was it was sold to him as show concerned with the psychosis of these criminal minds rather than the (oftentimes decent) sensationalized serial killer of the week show he ended up starring in. I wonder how he would feel about Hannibal if it had been him playing Jack Crawford .
Gore and violence are funny things where the context seems to a major governing factor; CSI has more gore and violence per episode than Hannibal could dream of getting away because of the way it is showcased within a clear framework of good guys vs bad guys who get caught within forty minutes.
And I agree with you regarding Hannibal's production costs; it does a lot with less (not too many sets, not many exterior shoots, and a capable effects team), which could be a deciding reason in it leading to getting (hopefully) a full run of seven seasons.

You know, I watch Hannibal (and will have a rewatch before Feb 24] and don't mind the "gore" as it serves a purpose in the story, but Criminal Minds is just gorey just to be gorey.. I remember watching a repeat on ION and seeing a girl crawling around with only her torso and a trail of blood behind her as she tried to escape and that was too much for me, the okay way I'd watch Criminal Minds is if it's on the break room at work.

Yeah, and I don't get them pulling it due to a school shooting...this episode only had two things in common: guns and kids, only in a completely different relationship to each other. It is also the least interesting of the episodes, which makes me wonder if that is the real reason. It just doesn't connect to the rest of the show in a meaningful way.

Only one season in and I like it more than Breaking Bad.

A lot of procedurals seem to be very gratuitous in some area. I haven't been keeping up with Criminal Minds recently, but it seems to be really heavy on the gore, a lot more than it used to be. And all the CSI shows are basically just 'How many episodes has it been since we did a rape/sexual assault plotline? THAT MANY. Write seven more.'
Hannibal certainly has a lot of visuals rooted in horror, but it never feels like a slap in the face. And even Bryan Fuller has said there's lines he won't cross - for instance, women being sexually assaulted, which is again basically a staple of television now. There's horror, but the show is aware it's horror, which is important.

Love this show. Anthony Hopkins may be the face of Hannibal Lector from the ages but Mads Mikkelsen is shaping up to be my favorite Lector.

I have a feeling that when Justified ends next year (I consider Justified to be the best show on TV) Hannibal may just be my number one favorite show on TV.

Really hope NBC does the right thing and keeps this show on the air and puts their faith in Bryan Fuller and company.

Yeah, I've read interviews with Fuller where he was all 'maybe if I could go back I might fight for it to air a bit more' or something. I think if they were more confident about the overall quality of the episode it might've aired in the first place.

In addition to being full of 'THIS IS WHAT THIS EPISODE IS ABOUT, GUYS' dialogue, it also had Hannibal acting creepily predatory towards Abigail which seemed pretty out of character, especially that early in the season. Unfortunately you do need some of that stuff to fill in plot details going forward though.

No. It is terrible. I don't understand what all the fuss is about. . .

Yes, I know. That's what I said. At first, I didn't notice the word ''network''. Then I realized it was my mistake and that the writer didn't include cable television. Read my comment again. :)

I'm getting tired of the "procedurals are bad because they're procedurals" mindset people have developed. There's never really reason behind it... it's seemingly assumed to be a self-evident rule: any degree of self-contained episodes = bad (unless it's a comedy series, of course) completely serialized story = good.
And the individual cases add nothing to the show? That's plain wrong. In fact, the individual cases are SO obviously designed to be reflective of the mental state of Will Graham (mushroom garden designed to "make a connection", "family killing" as he tries to build a relationship with Abigail Hobbes, Georgia Madchen not being able to tell who or where she is or if she's alive at any given time, etc.) that it would stretch plausibility had the show intended to be realistic rather than run on nightmare logic.
The true appeal of the show doesn't lie in gore, violence or nudity, but in the complex characters, philosophical dialogue, and visual style. How would putting the show on HBO or Showtime have enhanced the latter? If you ask me, it would me much more likely to have simply upped the former for "shock value" and marketability.

Hannibal is my all time favorite "NETWORK" show. It is too bad that commercials break the flow of otherwise perfect storytelling. Anyone who liked first season do yourself a huge favor and rewatch the season without commercials. You'll appreciate the artistry of this series much more when it flows the way that it is supposed to.

Heh, well, I love it. I think your should explain in a much more critical fashion why you don't like it?

Being unfamiliar with The Hannibal saga in any other iteration and put off from experiencing in any medium by it's alleged gore, I only got into this series from it's beloved tumblr status - and I'm glad I did. It's brilliant, yes, there is gore, but it is justified and given a humanity I didn't expect to find from this show at all.

Everything is people. Even the wine.

First of all. I never said the show was bad. I just said I didn't like it. Likewise I also said Fringe was the best network show in years and that started out as a procedural too. So I'm not knocking procedurals here. I have, for the better portion of my life watched mainly crime procedurals tirelessly. I even watched something like 6 seasons of CSI. However for me that ships has sailed. I;ve very much enjoyed the journey but the ship carrying the love for procedurals has departed the grey havens and is currently heading for the undying lands. (sorry for this obvious LoTR reference couldn't resist) These days I want to watch soemthing that I can invest in. That I not only have to watch every single episode of but that I also want to watch every single episode of. And for me the best format that can do that is the serialised format. Because there's just so much more room for character building and exploration of deeper themes if the story doesn't get bogged down by standalone stories. That being said, serials occasionally do feature a standalone story from time to time. Usually this is one where a single character's psyche is further developed. And usually some of the running arc continues in that episode as well but is given somewhat of a backseat. However this is the exception rather than the rule such, by definition it is for procedurals.

I understand the individual cases are there to further explore Graham very scrambled psyche but for me it's not working. I;m actually currently watching a show called "Monster" where several charcters are trying to unravel a certain persons psyche leading into a dark revisitation of horrible childhood memories. And this show actually also uses self contained stroies around the framework of the running arc and it's psychological themes. However Monster usually spends about 8 to 20 episodes (only 25 minutes each though) on one of these standalone stories making the standalone stories much more complex and engrossing while also adding up to the overarching narrative. It's a concept that for me really works but I don't doubt that might not be the case for everyone.

*deep breaths* man ranting is hard.

So basically what I am saying is that for me the indidual cases didn't work because they actually get too little screentime making them feel as filler rather than story beats such as it is with Monster. That being said I do agree with your assesment of the show's structure and the notion of the show running on an alternative rationality called "nightmare logic" seems entirely plausible to me. For me the best bits were Graham's rather unsettling dreams. I wish the show had, had more of that and less of the actuall policing element. For me the show would've worked better as a halucinogenic, nightmareride into the deep and dark psyche of Will Graham and as an exploration of the DNAcode that makes up a serial killer. The whole crime drama part of the show felt redundant to me. But then I like weird stuff nobody else would watch.

As for the characters. I agree with you. Graham is a wondeful character and like I said I wish we had spent more time in his head. Hannibal is very much on the margins of the first view eps but Mikkelsen punt in a good sufficiently creepy performance by applying just enough ressure n Graham very thin shell for it to break.

On the other hand I didn't find the show very philosphical but I'm hard to please on that matter as I have a minor degree in philosophy. I didn't find The Matrix philosophical either. Ghost in the Shell on the other hand I did. However on a psychological level (don't have a degree in that) the show really worked for me.

Had the show been put on cable it would probably have been more experimental in nature, becoming more edgy visually and generally more disturbing. I think it might've become more of the show I described above. Also, naturally it would've become a serial because cable doesn't do procedurals.

Phew! Almost done here, only one more part to go

Finally I'd like to comment on your statement that there is the perceived notion that all serials are good. Though I can see where you're coming from, speaking for myself I don't share that sentiment. I quit watching the heavilly serialised Viking after 6 episodes because the story just wasn't compelling enough for me. I quit the (surprisingly serialised) sci fi show Orphan Black because I found it to be very run of the mill. And I quit the lauded showtime serial Homeland because it's the most xenophobic show I've ever seen, And that's just last year. So no not all serials are good in my opinion.

So basically I like serials better because they cater to my individual taste more. A taste that isn't shared by everyone.

Hopefully this is sufficient reply to your understandable outrage over my previous post. I didn't intend to be rude and hopeully I wasn't here either. Bear in mind that a comment is always merely the expression of an individual's opinion and never a staten fact. (even though it might appear that way)

hah! I wasn't very interested in the premise but after seeing so much of it on Tumblr as well I gave it shot and LOVED it.

This is why DoG is the best place to discuss movies and TV shows - people are allowed their own opinions and aren't crucified for them! I fully intend to finish season 1, and I would hate to see it cancelled because it is absolutely what network TV needs. They need to see that taking a risk isn't a bad thing and it actually pays off. Hopefully I'll warm to it, though. Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast and it's a joy to watch him as he is clearly having fun in that role, and Larry Fishburne is always great. I yelped like a fanboy when I saw Lance Henriksen! Maybe I'm just missing something.

And this is why I love writing for DofG: because the comments are generally really thoughtful and intelligent. Although I did get personal attacks over a review mostly panning Dracula, but I think that was primarily my fellow Americans in a Dracula fan group who insisted that only fans should be writing revews (shrug). But generally speaking, I enjoy writing reviews so I can engage others in smart and insightful discussion about narratives (I am a narrative junkie pretty much across the board).

So thanks, oh readers of DofG, for feeding my addiction, and doing it an eloquence often missing elsewhere. Cannot wait to start reviewing Hannibal series two so we have even more fodder for discussion. Cheers!

I believe it was also slightly edited on air. I rewatched the whole thing on Amazon before writing this piece and noticed some small additions. And while Oeuf is the least successful of the episodes, there were some scenes left out or contextualed that we missed out on when the episode was broadcast. Definitely worth binge watching...

Love a guy who can own up. And yes, I even added "broadcast" just to try to clarify. To me, network and cable are very different entities, and I especially want to applaud whenever networks give us cable-quality shows. Especially since I can remember a time when cable programming was still trying to aspire to network quality. ;)

Fringe was garbage dude. Hannibal is way better

It is one of my absolute favourites TV shows, period. A few are better, but have still more than one season, so Hannibal still has time to up its game, and I am sure it will.
I got into it because I loved everything Bryan Fuller did before, and I was always furious at his shows getting cancelled: he's clearly someone with good taste, style and great visual talent, and his premises tend to be original and interesting.

Some may argue the quality of the show itself (and I'd die inside a little), but the performances are undoubtly great and it definitely is the most beautiful show out there right now. It is weird to call something gore and disturbing beautiful, but I think there isn't another word to it. It is stunningly beautiful.

Same kind of show different messages. A lot is happening here ... and It"s absolutely delicious!

Yes, it is definitely the best show in years. More people need to watch it! Every episode is a work of art.

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