As much as we all love cinema here at Cinapse, TV can give an opportunity for a story and characters to really flourish; often being the best outlet for a writer’s vision, providing time for a tale to organically unfold. Our first Why aren’t you watching… seeks to extol the virtues of a show returning to our screens for its second season this week: Hannibal. On its announcement, the idea of a series focused on the character made famous by Anthony Hopkins back in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs did not appeal, especially after several sequels/prequels and other adaptations had somewhat diluted the brand and potency of this character. When it aired last year, the show not only surprised many skeptics with its quality but also turned out to be one of the most bold and creative shows to have launched in years.
The first season of Hannibal, while drawing from the Thomas Harris novels, is set before the first book Red Dragon. It focuses on FBI special investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who, in the course of using his innate ability to adopt the mindset of a killer, becomes increasingly mentally disturbed. Enter one renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), to help counsel and support Graham as he works on increasingly horrifying cases with his patient unaware that his Doctor is involved in many of his investigations and is destined to become a far more dangerous threat than all of them.
The man behind this new take on the Harris novels is Bryan Fuller, the creator of wonderfully vibrant and original shows such as Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, which sadly were far too unappreciated when they originally aired. His creative spark has been applied here to great effect and its success is largely due to his approach in adapting the books. Fuller has plans for the show to last seven seasons. The first three being comprised of original material, drawing inspiration from the books to flesh out the history and experiences of the characters inhabiting this universe before the books are brought into play with season four adapting Red Dragon, five The Silence of the Lambs, six Hannibal and the seventh season concluding the cliffhanger ending of the final book.
In this day and age to speculate a show might last seven seasons is foolhardy but this approach and determination not to deviate from a plan or condense the material is already paying off and if completed would be an incredible achievement. Knowing this intent makes for a very exciting viewing. Why is it paying off? With such a focused structure there is little filler. 13 mapped-out episodes gives this the feel of a cable TV show. Such a framework provides for a very well-paced and structured show. NBC is bold to approach a show in this manner and I applaud their support of such an endeavor and only hope they allow the completion of it.
The novels of Harris offer much in the way of both characters and plot but the show gives scope in being an original work, fleshing out these relationships, setting up the scenarios we have seen unwind in their movie iterations. The showrunners plan to bring in familiar characters from the books as they build towards more recognizable plot-lines and events, in some cases merging characters, changing sexes (an interesting change in the dynamic that is possibly for the better) or bringing in new ones to move things along.
The thrust of the show is the gradual mental decline of Graham as he investigates various heinous murders, so do not mistake this for a typical crime procedural. Hannibal is far more concerned with the psychology of a killer. Themes such as how empathizing with a killer takes its toll, the accumulation of disturbing thoughts and imagery, loss and the consequence of taking a life are all explored. The show plays on the mind: psychology is at the core and every choice made either in front of or behind the camera seems intent to affect the psychology of the viewer, to draw you in, to disturb, to delight.
Hannibal goes to some surprisingly dark places, especially for a network TV show and at times pushes the boundaries of what it can get away with. Most of the murders are surprisingly artistic, scenes arranged into angelic representations, bodies contorted into musical instruments or a twisted totem pole on a beach. Grisly visual sights that are bloody, cold and disturbing prevail but they are horrifically beautiful in their way. More disturbing than any of the imagery is how the show effectively reveals the darkness of human nature.
Obviously the hardest achievement for the show was going to be casting and portraying a role already so ingrained in our minds by Hopkins, and thankfully Mikkelsen (The Hunt, The Wedding) makes the role his own. This Hannibal is an elegant, refined character, coldly calculating and akin to a Bond villain, apt after Mikkelsen’s work in Casino Royale. A refined creature bordering on reptilian, yet portrayed in a way still able to evoke belief in his regrets and fears, notably during his own therapy sessions. Lecter is portrayed as a superior being, with knowledge of style, art and the culinary world drawing impressed people to him, wining and dining them in the sophisticated surroundings of his home. Yes, dining. Sumptuous, mouthwatering dishes prepared (under the guidance of the show’s consultant Chef José Andrés) by Lecter served to unsuspecting guests. Yes, Hannibal often cuts away from murder scenes where a body part is missing only see the good Doctor in his kitchen preparing a feast. It is jawdroppingly horrifying and staggeringly well executed. One can only watch in amazement as high brow discussions unfold or cases are discussed knowing the horror of what is actually occurring. The social protest and commentary of this cannibalism while he draws people into his world, making them aspire to his level, is yet another well done aspect of both the show and the character.
Hugh Dancy (Black Hawk Down, Ella Enchanted) does admirable work going against such a strong character as Hannibal Lecter. He shows the intelligence and social inadequacies of the character as well as the stress and conflict he endures in his investigations and the aftermath as it takes its toll on his mental health. His loss of control and inability to discern reality from his empathic visions is startling and the manipulation of this breakdown by Lecter as well as their “friendship” is one of the most gripping aspects of the show. Joining this partnership is a host of notable names such as Caroline Dhavernas (Wonderfalls), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), Gina Torres (Firefly), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) and even Eddie Izzard (cake or death?). Each helping flesh out this world with impressive performances.
The stylishness of the titular character permeates the rest of the show. Fuller’s previous effort Pushing Daisies was one of the most visually stunning pieces of TV I’ve seen, although this outing tempers the vibrancy and quirkiness of that program. Oversaturated with luxurious, vivid colors, at times stark and cold when the brutality of a murder is in play, the show is simply beautiful to watch. An American Gothic feel with aspects that would feel familiar to fans of The Wicker Man, True Detective or American Horror Story. Fuller is aided in this aesthetic by notable directors including Michael Rymer (American Horror Story, Battlestar Galactica) and also Guillermo Navarro, a cinematographer and frequent collaborator of Guillermo del Toro who has worked on Pan’s Labyrinth, From Dusk Till Dawn and Pacific Rim amongst many others. An unsettling score from Brian Reitzell only serves to heighten the sensory effects. Death and decay has never looked so good, with twisted imagery reflecting the inner truth behind the characters, the depth and creativity of the aesthetic of Hannibal is reason enough to watch.
Hannibal isn’t a typical crime procedural but rather an exploration of psychosis, an exercise in manipulation and a visually striking journey showing the development of a fascinating and macabre set of characters. The approach is ambitious, the execution both stylish and disturbing while also being consistently entertaining and gripping. Hannibal is an absolute feast of a TV show that is required viewing and should be savored as long as possible.
Hannibal Season 2 premieres Friday, February 28th, 10/9c on NBC.