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Spring 2013 Review: Hannibal

10 Apr


I initially thought Hannibal was on cable, instead of NBC, and although I’m not sure why I thought that, after watching the show, it makes a lot of sense that I would think it.  It feels like a cable show.  In fact, in a highly unusual arrangement (and perhaps an auger of the future), NBC has agreed to continue to air seasons of 13 episodes if the show is successful, which has become the default cable format.

The show was created by cult TV veteran Bryan Fuller, who has been behind Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Mockingbird Lane, none of which I have seen, and none of which has been particularly successful, but most of which have dedicated small followings.  Unlike what I know about those shows though, nothing about this show feels particularly cult-y, and I mean that in neither a bad or good way.  Rather than dissect that further though, let’s get into the meat of the show.

The title Hannibal in question is Hannibal Lecter, and thus this is a story that just about anyone who’s been around pop culture for the past 25 years knows pretty well.  Lecter, we know, is a famously cunning and psychopathic cannibal who, while in captivity, helps Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling solve a major serial killer case in Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal takes place well before Lecter has been captured.  The show stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, a character we know from the mediocre Silence of the Lambs prequel Red Dragon, where he was played by Ed Norton.  Here, Will Graham is a veritable super analyst, who has remarkable observational abilities, and more importantly a type of perfect empathy which allows him to relate and take the vantage point of even the most psychotic killers.  His abilities have the negative side effect of making him particularly vulnerable to being mentally destabilized, and Dancy does a very good job of seeming on edge the entire episode. We learn he is not a full FBI agent because he couldn’t pass some sort of stability tests but he is lecturing and helping out with random assignments.

His boss is Jack Crawford, head of FBI Behavioral Sciences, played by Lawrence Fishbourne here, and by Scott Glenn in Silence of the Lambs.  Crawford convinces Graham to take some time to help him out with finding serial killers, even if it means subjecting his psyche to serious angst.  Crawford is the level-headed boss who may not have the intuitive smarts of Graham but knows how to manage and direct people, and he’ll probably have a lot on his hands this season overseeing Graham, and the third member of our key trifecta.

This third member is none other than Hannibal Lecter himself.  Lecter is a renowned psychiatrist, as well as a brilliant psyopath,and  is brought in by Crawford to help develop psychological profiles on cases, including one in the pilot involving a cannibal who is kidnapping college aged girls and killing them.

The show’s critical dynamic is the tete a tete between Graham and Lecter.  Graham knows how to see into the mind of criminals, but only at great vulnerability to his own psyche. Lecter, who, without emotions, can’t be emotionally manipulated himself, knows how to push Graham’s buttons, and how to unnerve him. In this first episode, soon after it is discovered that the killer they’re tracking is a cannibal, there’s another killing that seems to fit the profile.  Graham immediately recognizes the work as that of a copy cat, and describes the killer as an intelligent psychopath who will show no pattern, has no feeling, and will likely never be caught.  Only we, the viewers, know that Lecter in fact committed this crime, and that Graham, unbeknownst to himself, is profiling Lecter perfectly (well, except for the never being caught part).  Lecter toys with Graham, but it seems to possibly be at least partly out of respect.  In fact, whether it was Lecter’s intention or not, it was seeing the incredibly wrong copy cat crime scene that allowed Graham to figure out the correct profile for the killer.

We also have to suffer through knowing Hannibal is super evil while the characters keep bringing him on board to help them on investigations, placing him in an ideal position to sabotage their cases. In the first episode, he warns their killer, right before they get to him, giving him a chance to kill his wife and severely injure his daughter.

Hannibal has a lot of procedural aspects.  I would guess, without knowing for sure as I’ve only seen the first episode, that each episode at least initially will involve the investigation of a new serial killer.  I was drawn in more than I usually am by procedurals.  Part of this was perhaps due to the high stakes of psychopathic serial killers, and part may have been due to the cinematic qualities of the pilot. One episode felt more like a suspense film than, say, a CSI episode , and the thirteen episode format might help protect that per episode special-ness more than a longer traditional network format.  I think a successful Hannibal can share aspects of two of my favorite current shows, Sherlock and Justified.  Sherlock has the same case per episode format with a more cinematic feel (it helps that Sherlock episodes are double length) and the same genius investigator type in the lead.  Hannibal looks like what Sherlock might be like if Sherlock and Moriarty were working side by side before they were official arch enemies.   Justified began as a rough procedural but morphed in a more and more serial show. The extended arcs made it significantly better but even the individual procedural episodes were a notch above the average, due to the strong character profiles and style built into the show.

The show is a little gimmicky in the way it shows Graham thinking about crime scenes, as he imagines himself as the criminal, and has him covered and blood and guts as he figures out how the criminal acted.  I normally don’t care for this type of gimmickry, but for whatever reason, it really didn’t bother me here.  Also, Gillian Anderson appears as Graham’s therapist, who tries to warn Crawford off from putting Graham too close to the edge.

Will I watch it again?  Yes.  Again, I normally stray from procedurals, but, if this is in at least part a procedural, it’s certainly not a typical one.   The Lecter – Graham relationship is electric right off the bat, and from the extra-curricular notes I’ve read by Fuller, I think he’ll do well to move the plot along during the seasons, rather than than have Lecter and Graham’s relationship in a perpetual status quo, which is a good thing.  It’s often hard to move a show along when you have something good in the present, because you risk having something worse in the future, but staying in the same place can often be just as bad.  My visceral reaction to finishing the first episode was to want to immediately put on the second, and while that doesn’t always bode well for the long term, it’s always a good sign for a pilot.