Is Hannibal the best network TV series in years?

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.

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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.

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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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