NBC’s Hannibal is not your average mystery show or procedural. It’s not even your average television show. It is cinematic in the best ways possible, aesthetically, narratively, and its primary characters are novelistic in how well they are written. What sets Hannibal apart from shows like Law & Order, CSI:, and NCIS is not necessarily its high production value, but how it’s never about the killer and always about the killer in any given episode. The show is as much as representation and visual metaphor for who Dr. Hannibal Lecter is as a character as anything: it plays mind games with you. And it may be the best show that NBC has aired in years.
Developed by Pushing Daisies helmer Bryan Fuller (which is, for the record, one of my favorite shows of all time), Hannibal works as a partial prequel to Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. Though inherent to the television format, the show is episodic; it still sprawls like a good book, or even better, a great film. But, the characters and stories in this show are not married to either Harris’ source material or to Michael Mann’s film adaptation Manhunter, or even to Jonathan Demme’s seminal thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Sort of like the rebirth of a comic book hero or a character of a big budget franchise being rebooted: this is a new and fresh interpretation that at once utilizes its source material for inspiration yet diverges from it to give the story, and the characters that inhabit it, new life. So, Fuller smartly uses things only mentioned in passing in Red Dragon as some of the focal points for each episode, such as some of the killers his good guy, Will Graham, must track down. Yet he changes the sexes of some of the characters, making tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds and psychiatry professor Dr. Bloom women. Does this change matter? Yes and no. Yes in that these characters are well written, insightful, intelligent, etc. No, in that the change does not inherently affect how good the characters are. Every divergence that Fuller makes, however, enhances the story. It makes one wonder, however, that since the series is working in chronological order, prior to the events of Red Dragon mind you, if it should actually follow the story to a point where the show will become a serial adaptation of the novel.
The most striking thing about the show, though, at least what immediately springs to mind is how it looks. It might be the best looking show on television, at least on one of the major networks. The cinematography is atypical for a television series, even a good television series. Its precise use of colors, texture, slow motion, etc. is more reminiscent of two things: a show you would find on pay cable, like HBO or Showtime, or of a very specific kind of genre show (but a good one), like the teen-noir Veronica Mars. In some ways, the visual aesthetic of Hannibal is marriage of the mind of both Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter: sinister but exact in its filming, as Will would have it, and artfully, psychologically executed as only Lecter would have it. I say psychologically because so much of what is on screen recalls myths, literature, opera, film, yet connected into the dark interiors of the mind and subtext of such elements. Its visual style could be compared to the gorgeousness of the films of Park Chan-wook: Bergman-esque in its ties to psychology and morality, but painted so expertly on film.
But so much of what makes the show interesting not how gorgeous it is, but how set it is on seeping into your mind long after the episode has ended. Hannibal is, in this way, the perfect representation of its character, Hannibal Lecter. It wants to play the same mind games with you that make Dr. Lecter such an enticing character to begin with. It creeps into the psyches of all of its characters, peering into the nooks and crannies of the mind. Hannibal is less concerned with catching the killer the way a normal procedural show would and more concerned in analyzing and deconstructing what makes that episode’s killer tick. It is also supremely invested in understanding how its two characters, who will, if the chronology continues, begin a cat and mouse game, and how their minds work.
For Will, this is done explicitly. By introducing Hugh Dancy’s character immediately as “on the Autism spectrum” and closer to “Asperger’s”, the audience is given some sort of identifier. But when the cinematography and the scene itself jump into exactly what Will is thinking – that’s when the show gets interesting. Although the weakest aspect of the show is probably its dialogue (which sometimes tries too hard to be either meaningful and/or eerie), the phrase “this is my design” does work strongly within context. Graham is characterized not stereotypically via lack of social cues, a la The Big Bang Theory, but by genuine empathy, which is executed by the “design scenes”. To visualize exactly what is in Will’s mind is an interesting tactic to get the audience to empathize with will. His empathy manifests itself in the recreation of the crime, but not as a third party observer, but as the killer themselves. With the swinging, swooshing of a clock or metronome hand, each of these Design scenes has a particular tempo which they follow. It’s all precisely executed and shown, again, showing exactly how matched Graham and Lecter are together. Dancy portrays Graham with achingly powerful subtlety, never overplaying his hand either in the drama department or in the tortured soul department. Look deep into the character’s past in the novels and Graham is a damaged person, but while this damage is retained for the show, there’s less exposition and not the same back story. Instead, the show is the opportunity to explore Will’s mind.
The character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter has been written about and analyzed, certainly, and enough is known about the character where it seems that reinventing him would be fruitless. What else is there to know or care about him? On the contrary, Lecter’s complexities as a sociopath cum psychiatrist offer all the analysis one could ever want. The issue is, anyone playing him who is not Anthony Hopkins, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1991 for his portrayal of Lecter in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, will unfairly draw comparison between the new comer and iconic performance. Hopkins went on to play Lecter again in 2001’s Hannibal (directed by Ridley Scott) and again in 2002 in the prequel Red Dragon. Gaspard Ulliel will probably never be remembered for playing the brooding ninja in Hannibal Rising (you know, since no one ever remember that film exists), and Brian Cox, though giving a fine performance in Mann’s Manhunter, will be left in the dust behind Hopkins. It is Hopkins’ flamboyancy that has defined the character, a man who is unquestionably the smartest man in the room, even when he isn’t in the room. Always steps ahead of everyone else (except, perhaps, Will Graham prior to Red Dragon), but his persona has always made him the least likely suspect, even if has committed the crime. Who would ever think that someone who has a photographic memory and a penchant for sketching, a fine taste for French cuisine, all the knowledge of art, classical music, and personality disorders anyone could possess – who would ever think that that man was a sociopath, never mind a cannibal and murderer?
It’s the ability to capture the audience’s attention in the most exotic way that makes Lecter so appealing. At some points, even though you know Lecter is probably pure evil manifested as hyper-intelligent, you don’t care. You would love to have a conversation with him. That is how Hopkins portrayed Lecter for three films. Cox’s performance is significant more restrained, almost in a “barely there” quality to those who have been exposed to Hopkins before, but he taunts William Peterson’s Will more overtly and more like a bully than we would have assumed Lecter would, based on Hopkins’ performance. So, who, in this whole wide world, could possibly play Hannibal Lecter and leave us with an impression that does not include the phrase, “well, he’s not as good as Hopkins, but…”? Mads Mikkelsen.
The Cannes Best Actor winner for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is best known for portraying Bond’s first nemesis in the 2006 reboot Casino Royale. His Le Chiffre was the much needed character that could outsmart Bond while leading the secret agent on into thing that Bond knows best. After years of the same formula, Mikkelsen’s confident portrayal was exactly what the series needed, and the perfect foil to Craig’s cocky, born-again Bond. He was also in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising as a nameless one eyed destroyer and in Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding as a man returning to the home he grew up. So, this man has had a rather varied and prestigious career, better known to critics for his strong portrayals in his native Denmark than for anything really American. But Mikkelsen’s versatility and ability to channel all the right characteristics without ever really bringing Hopkins to mind, well, that’s the sign of a great actor.
Mikkelsen, as evidence by Casino Royale, is good at mind games. And since the show is so reliant on playing those kinds of games with its audience, it is thus important that they acquire an actor that can do the same thing. Mikkelsen is thus able to seem sophisticated, intelligent, and completely confident. Rather, he embodies those qualities that Lecter is known for. The winning trait of Mikkelsen’s performance, though, is the fact that he always looks like he’s sizing you up for multiple purposes: competence, intelligence, and how tasty you’ll be when he serves you as the main entrée. Mikkelsen’s ability to get under the audience’s skin is perhaps the strongest quality of the performance, but it is accentuated by the fact that he’s able to perform this without being compared to the way Hopkins did it. Mikkelsen’s brand of psychosis is not Hopkins. He has been able to make Lecter his own. So, while the advantage to his performance is that there’s no comparison to other Lecters, to one issue is that, at times, Le Chiffre comes to mind. That is, primarily, because of the recognizable accent and, sometimes, the fact that both were known for their mind games. But Mikkelsen’s performance is bravura I just almost wrote “Lecter” instead of “Mikkelsen” at the beginning of the sentence. He has truly made the character fresh again and delicious to watch on television.
So much of the show, though, is focused on the minds of Will and Hannibal, so much so that you can sometimes not tell whose mind the show is investigating. Sometimes, it’s both at once. But that’s what makes the show unique: rare are the shows that care less about “solving the mystery” and more about deconstructing the psychosis and the motive. This method of storytelling, where sometimes the killer doesn’t even “matter” in the conventional sense, makes the series far more interesting than it may have played out normally. Instead, it sprawls cinematically, more like a mini-series on HBO than a regular television show (violence and all). Added by the inherent chronology that the show is following and the canon it is rewriting, watching each week is not like watching an episode of a television series; it feels more like seeing another chapter of the story unfold, filled with atmosphere, dramatic irony, and deadpan humor.
Each episode of Hannibal is named after a course in French cuisine. And so, it follows, each episode becomes tastier and more succulent to watch. With standout performances from the cast and incredibly smart writing, Hannibal is one of the most pleasing things on television. But it’s Mikkelsen’s superb performance, its high production values, and mind games that make the show worth a watch. How often does a show taunt you and get leave you stunned long after the show is over? It leaves a taste in your mouth that’s at once piquant and yet unsettling. It’s the most tempting thing on television today.
Please, NBC, pick it up for another season.