Some light spoilers for Hannibal season one ahead.
NBC doesn’t have a lot going for it these days. Sure Parks and Recreation is still going strong, but The Office and 30 Rock are over and they’ve all but gutted their lovable postmodern goofball Community. Not to mention nixing Law & freaking Order. And that’s without mentioning the myriad collections of trash-ready television they’ve shoveled out recently; Do No Harm, Animal Hospital, 1600 Penn, Whitney etc.
So why the hell would I think that a show on NBC based on a pseudo-franchise that peaked in 1990 about a cannibal named Hannibal would be any good? I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. And I thank the Lord of Light for proving me wrong.
While quality control at NBC is dark and full of terrors somehow the brilliantly written, acted, edited, filmed and scored drama Hannibal has managed to burst through the cracks in NBCs programming to become easily the best television show to debut this year.
For an hour long television drama that isn’t Breaking Bad the crew of Hannibal go far out of their way to deliver a feature film quality product. Their noticeable focus on cinematography, for instance, goes a long way when the show presents the visceral imagery that’s already become something of a trademark. Montages of the titular character cooking for his pals or the titular character’s best Pal, Will “Whacky Willy” Graham going into one of his classic “Whacky Willy-outs” are absolutely enthralling. Does it help that what Hannibal is cooking for his pals is his other pals and that Will “Whacky Willy” Graham’s “Whacky Willy-outs” are actually terrifying? Sure, but the manner in which they’re presented is gorgeous none the less.
Will-outs and Pal pallets aside, however, the camerawork on Hannibal is never quite as jarring as it is with the presentations of the ever-creative, brutal murders that executive producer/developer Brian Fuller has dubbed “death tableaus.”
Before Law ampersand Order got canceled it was on the air for a whopping 75 years, and in that time dead bodies became as pedestrian to American viewers as sitcom dads and child stars. But Hannibal isn’t content with pedestrian in any facet of its production, down to the dead bodies. Would it have done the trick to see Will and the gang hunt down a killer who just stabbed or shot folks? Yeah, sure, I guess, maybe. But going after a killer that slits people’s mouths clean through to the back of their head until they look like a broken Pez dispenser is so much worse… and so much better.
It’s not just that the show seems to be a device for perpetually concocting vivid murders though, it’s the portrayal of the vivid victims. Fuller and company don’t give you a classic Lenny Brisco one-liner in a body bag, they give you art, positioned and framed and presented as something to be dissected and analyzed.
Much as the mouth-slashed, angel winged, fungus-feeding victims are displayed as art, Hugh Dancy’s aforementioned Will Graham is something of a critic. Graham is a hyper-empath with an unchecked imagination who examines the mutilated human PowerPoint presentations left by the show’s many creative killers and translates them to other, less lead-role-worthy investigators. But Will’s knack for finding motive in a human totem pole brings with it other symptoms. Like that one quote about looking into the darkness and then not being able to see anything because there isn’t a light on or whatever.
Dancy brings sympathy and terror to mental illness. But where normally one might be afraid of someone in Will’s condition, you’re instead more inclined to be afraid with Will as he struggles with the side effects of his “Whacky Will-outs.” It’s worth noting that his wife, Claire Danes, brings a similarly vibrant portrayal to mental illness in Homeland, but while Danes’ character is crazy in a neat 9-11 jazz kind of way, Dancy’s is crazy in a more heart-stopping, primal terror kind of way.
Dancy makes up a third of a trio of actors at the forefront of Hannibal who could each carry a show in their own right.
Laurence Fishburne plays Will’s handler, Jack Crawford. The FBI agent could have easily been little more than a stringent authority figure to keep Will in check and inevitably demand his badge and gun whilst shotgunning cholesterol medication, but FIshburne has turned Crawford into flesh and blood. The subtleties he brings to his character bring Crawford to life and are a testament to Fishburne’s status as one of the greatest contemporary screen actors.
Of course Fishburne and Dancy are both chumps because neither of their character’s names are the title of the show. That burdensome honor falls to Mads Mikkelsen, who assumes the role of Dr. Hannibal Lectre, first made famous by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.
In reading about the preproduction and development of the Hannibal television series I came across an interesting factoid: Mikkelsen apparently barely beat out David Tennant for the title role. Talk about dodging a bullet.
I’m sure Tennant is lovely when he’s hopping in and out of phone booths, but Mads Mikkelsen is Hannibal Lectre. The way he moves, the way he talks, everything about Mikkelsen’s performance is enthralling, so much so that the climax of an early episode was little more than an uneventful conversation between Lectre and Graham and I was still left absolutely floored.
A man who detests humanity? A man who toys with humanity? A man who longs for humanity? Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lectre is all of them and none of them and a guy who eats people. He is definitely that. He earns his spot as the titular character with every line and leaves eager to hear what he’ll say next. If Mads Mikkelsen were the only thing right about Hannibal it would still be one of the best shows on television.
In classic NBC fashion the network almost cancelled Hannibal before finally removing its head from its ass just quick enough to take a breath, renew the best show in its lineup, and resubmerge. By the final four episodes of Hannibal’s first season I wasn’t just excited for each new episode, I was anxious. My stomach would tense up as characters confronted one another. I would sit on the edge of my seat while Hannibal talked to his psychiatrist. I would scream bloody murder at creative bowties.
Hannibal is a show of a caliber that does not exist on network television. It’s a fluke. An anomaly comprised of brilliant cast and crew that are producing something leaps and bounds ahead of anything else on NBC or any other network for that matter.
There’s a scene in the middle of season one where Will is called upon to investigate a man dead in a concert hall whose throat was cut open by a cello neck that was shoved down his throat and strung with his vocal cords. It’s an unreal image. As Will walks himself through the killer’s process he approaches the mangled mess of man and instrument and stands before hundreds of empty seats looking out at the hall before him. When he finally strikes a note on the man’s throat it emits a sound somewhere between a thick, warm cello and a violent scream of anguish.
Every facet of Hannibal works; the performances, the writing, the camerawork, the sound design, everything. Not only do you as a viewer deserve to watch something as good as Hannibal, Hannibal deserves to be watched.