Hannibal, the newest bit of pop culture to pick at whatever meat may be left on the bones of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel, Red Dragon, is certainly the best-acted, best-looking new series NBC has mounted since the pilot for Smash. (Remember how good Smash seemed at first?) It stars Hugh Dancy as damaged-goods special agent Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen in the title role of Hannibal Lecter. Both of them give excellent performances, with Dancy doing a fine job of selling Will’s combination of hard-headed brilliance and emotional fragility, while Danish actor Mikkelsen—best known for his turn as a creepazoid Bond villain in Casino Royale—makes his Hannibal sound, appropriately it turns out, like a genius fussbudget who’s got a bone stuck in his throat. As overseen by creator Bryan Fuller, the series is art-directed up the wazoo; as he proved with the cult series Pushing Daisies, Fuller knows how to make absolutely anything look great.
Now, however, instead of helming a Day-Glo show about a pie maker who can bring things back to life, Fuller goes dark, giving us beautifully designed scenes of corpses with their eyes gouged out, or the skin from their backs filleted just enough to be pulled back to resemble flesh-formed wings, or entire torsos punctured by metal objects—human pincushions with poles rammed into their limbs and chest. Fuller has become the Caravaggio of the criminal mind, the Titian of TV torture porn.
In this series, form mirrors content: immense care is taken to showcase Hannibal Lecter as a man who takes immense care of everything in his life. This ranges from the elaborately prepared gourmet meals he serves Will and Will’s boss, Lawrence Fishburne’s FBI guy Jack Crawford, to Lecter’s exceedingly neat office (in Hannibal, he’s a psychiatrist who engages everyone he encounters in would-be brain-buster dialogues, especially with willful, wonky Will), to his meticulously executed murders. (Fuller can detail a scene so vividly, you just know the socks in which Hannibal glides across a carpet to surprise a victim must be made of cashmere.) This character has become a pop-culture fixture—whether played by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Silence of the Lambs, or now Mikkelsen—in no small part due to his depiction as a purringly articulate, cultured psychopath, and Fuller cranks up the classical music on the soundtrack as his Hannibal serves up courses of liver or tongue.
If you found those entrée selections witty, you’re the ideal audience for Hannibal. You need to be easily impressed by the more highfalutin’ phrases and metaphors characters use to describe each other and the gruesome crimes committed: in the opening moments of Thursday’s premiere, Will used his super-sensitivity to put himself in the position of a killer as he slaughtered a husband and wife in their home. This is Fuller’s stylistic flourish, one that will recur throughout the series: Will goes all woozy, a golden hue suffuses the screen, and crimes are reenacted—in this case, a gunshot to the chest of the man and a convincingly horrifying skull splattering of the woman as she frantically tries to call her home-security company. Will, who is said to have “pure empathy” with killers, speaks what he thinks are the words the killer probably spoke as he did this: “This is my design,” he intones, detailing how he “expertly” shot the woman so that she would not die quickly but feel maximum pain.
Over on Fox’s The Following, the worst Kevin Bacon has to put up with is a serial killer leading a cult that’s busy butchering Edgar Allen Poe allusions. I had higher hopes for this Kevin Williamson production, since I assumed the baddie, played with Lecter-like haughtiness by James Purefoy, would become more like Charles Manson and his thrill-kill crew, but so far my desired critique of counterculture-style craziness hasn’t materialized. Even so, I’m enjoying Bacon’s take on grizzled alcoholism and the doughtiness of Natalie Zea, who fares better than the women on Hannibal and whom I’d follow anywhere she goes when she strays from Justified. (Well, not as far as actually watching Californication.)
In the episodes of Hannibal NBC has sent out to critics, women really get it the worst. It is said that the method used to murder is a way “to honor” one mutilated woman; to a cannibal killer, “eating her is honoring her”; the killings “elevate [murder] to art.” Lecter himself, with his fussy Windsor knots and dainty table manners, belches fulsome aphorisms such as “Killing must feel good to God—he does it all the time.” Even Will gives out with such pronouncements as, “It feels like I’m talking to a shadow suspended on dust.” (Huh?)
Lest I haven’t made it clear enough yet: I find Hannibal generally repulsive and definitely tiresome. All of this talent and effort to burnish a (and let’s face it, that’s what he is here) hero who maims, kills, and eats people (most of them female) while feeling nothing regarding their suffering: ick, to use the shortest, most polite word.
There’s a combination of things that have provoked this reaction in me, some mixture of exhaustion with the Hannibal character (an exhaustion Thomas Harris himself seemed to feel when churning out the execrable prose in the 2006 novel Hannibal Rising) and, yes, I admit that my capacity to consume entertainment death has been curtailed in the post–Newtown, Connecticut, era. I just don’t find this stuff very amusing anymore. Part of me has come to understand what Mandy Patinkin said he felt when he quit Criminal Minds (CBS’s long-running, huge-audience, abattoir procedural)—that being repeatedly exposed to such material can seem soul-depleting.
Mind you, I’m not condemning or whining about the genre itself. I think Manhunter is a near-great film, and I’ve read enough novels in this area to recommend to you two that are superior to anything Harris has written: Shane Stevens’s By Reason of Insanity (1979) and Jack Ketchum’s Off-Season (1980). Michael Mann made sure you felt repugnance for his Lecter and the full price William Petersen’s Will paid for tracking him (ruined psyche and family life). But Fuller has to make his Will quirky yet resilient enough (he’s like Tony Shalhoub’s Monk as a wry, depressed neurotic) to remain an engaging protagonist week after week in an ongoing TV show, and his Lecter charming enough that you’ll want to keep going to the table for his weekly cannibal-menu meals with various dinner guests. This last element is what I find, for all of this production’s skill and talent, most tedious and unlikable about Hannibal.
Fuller has a loyal habit of recasting actors from his previous shows, and the female lead in Hannibal, Caroline Dhavernas, was the star of Fuller’s breakthrough show, 2004’s Wonderfalls. She plays a psychiatrist here, primarily a link between Will and Crawford, but it’s also implied that her Dr. Alana Bloom may be the ultimate prey sought by Hannibal. Dhavernas plays Bloom as intelligent and far more vivacious than any other character in the show, but all I feel when I look at her is dread: Dread for what this sadistic series may have in store for her.
In a future episode, Will says of the bloodletting inspired by Lecter, “It’s getting harder and harder to make myself look ... This is bad for me.”
You and me both, brother.
I have a feeling we may be a lonely pair, however. My Lecter-like sense of smell tells me this gussied-up stinker has the whiff of “hit” all over it. Oh, and one more thing: if Parenthood is abducted from NBC’s fall schedule and killed, you can add one more suspect to that serial murder, too ...