Several weeks ago NBC sent out the first few episodes of its highly anticipated new thriller Hannibal to TV writers, and I’ve been trying to sort out my feelings about it ever since.
As you’ve probably already heard, the new series is a prequel of sorts to Thomas Harris’ bestselling books featuring the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a role most closely associated with Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning turn in The Silence of the Lambs. Its title notwithstanding, however, Lecter isn’t actually the main character in the new NBC series, which premieres tonight. Instead, the show revolves mainly around criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who excels at his job because he has an uncanny knack for seeing into the minds of serial killers.
It’s draining work and, as the series opens, Will is at the end of his rope emotionally. Suffering from exhaustion and recurring nightmares, he threatens to quit, so his boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), enlists the help of someone to keep an eye on Will’s mental state: renowned psychiatrist Dr. Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale). That sets up the show’s tantalizing premise. As Will pursues serial killers week after week, unbeknownst to him and his colleagues, he’s teamed with one of the most twisted psychos of them all.
Hannibal springs from the fertile mind of Bryan Fuller, the brilliant writer-producer whose self-acknowledged fascination with death and mortality has turned up in some form in nearly all of his previous projects: Dead Like Me, the dark 2003-04 Showtime fantasy about a band of reapers, the spirits who harvest the souls of the dead; Pushing Daisies, the endearingly whimsical 2007-09 ABC romantic comedy about a soulful piemaker and the girlfriend he brings back from the grave; and Mockingbird Lane, Fuller’s attempted reinvention of The Munsters that NBC abandoned after airing the show’s sumptuous pilot last fall as a Halloween special. What all those projects had in common was a supreme confidence in mixing tones, an ability to interject comedy, albeit sometimes black, into the most macabre contexts.
Hannibal, on the other hand, is Fuller’s first foray into straight-on horror and, as such, I find it far less interesting than his previous projects. There is a grave (no pun intended) beauty to some of the scenes, which have a sense of almost churchlike ritual, yet the thing doesn’t hold together very well. Will, for example, keeps being haunted by images of a giant stag in his dreams and occasional hallucinations, but after the umpteenth enigmatic appearance of that damn deer, I started to suspect that this “mystical” image was there just to give me the unearned impression that all of this had A Deeper Meaning.
There are also occasional credibility gaps. A serial killer who carves up his victims and contorts their bodies into obscene parodies of angels is found an apparent suicide via the same process, yet none of the investigators seems to have a problem believing the grotesque injuries could possibly have been self-inflicted. In another scene, Lecter inexplicably manages to escape from a house that is tightly surrounded by police, with no subsequent explanation of how that happened.
Dancy makes Will’s psychic pain palpable, but his exhaustion often translates onscreen as torpor, which doesn’t help a show that already has some significant problems with dramatic pacing. As for Mikkelsen, I’ve seen a few other reviews that praise the sly wit and charm of his performance, qualities that I simply don’t see. Mikkelsen’s Lecter has nothing to do with the creepily avuncular vibe Hopkins brought to Silence of the Lambs and, to me, the character here comes across transparently as a guy who’s harboring some pretty dark secrets.
As for the violence, well, it’s very violent. Blood abounds at the crime scenes, as when a father slashes the throat of his own teenage daughter on-camera. And it takes a strong stomach not to get a little queasy as we watch Lecter in his kitchen lovingly preparing his gourmet dishes out of organs that are recognizably human (would you prefer your lungs medium rare or well done?).
I’m by no means a horror fan, but I have no trouble handling it if it’s wrapped up in a complex, character-driven context such as Showtime’s long-running serial-killer drama Dexter or AMC’s it’s-not-really-about-the-zombies thriller The Walking Dead or A&E’s splendidly acted new Bates Motel. Hannibal, in contrast, so far strikes me as relentlessly bleak and joyless and, frankly, it leaves me feeling depressed. If that’s what Dr. Lecter is serving, I’ll have to take a rain check on this dinner.