Network TV is a wasteland, and NBC in particular seems a barren desert (minus Parks & Recreation). So I’m as shocked as anyone that the second best show on TV calls the dying peacock its home. Yes, I’m talking about Hannibal. Yes, it’s that good.
At first glance, Brian Fuller’s Hannibal might seem like the newest incarnation of the crime-scene detective show. Like Criminal Minds, it focuses on serial killers. Like C.S.I., it pieces together crime scene details to help catch the killer. The genre, both on film, television, and in literature, is endlessly replicated because it is fairly self-contained and self-generating. Each episode follows the same arc and allows any viewer to play its game, regardless of whether they are new to the show or a longtime fan. The only real distinction between these shows is the type of crime investigated, the geographic setting, and the quirky personalities and styles of the investigative teams. Hannibal certainly carves out a unique niche in all of these categories: it only investigates particularly showy serial killers, it is set in blue-collar, non-descript places like rural Minnesota and backwoods Virginia, and its protagonist, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), has a unique skill that allows him to mentally reenact the killings to generate startling psychological profiles (the show calls them “leaps”). All of these traditional genre tropes are heavily emphasized in the early episodes, but it quickly becomes clear that Hannibal is a completely unique beast.
Am I burying the lede? If so, its only because the show does as well. The titular Hannibal is that Hannibal, Dr. Lecter. The show chronicles his early years, well before Buffalo Bill and those fava beans with chianti, but it does so in an incredibly fascinating way. Played brilliantly by Mads Mikkelson (like, give him the Emmy NOW brilliantly), this Hannibal looks almost nothing like Anthony Hopkins’s take on the fictional killer. This Lecter is refined, thoughtful, charming, and even empathetic. He comes off as caring and even loving at times as he helps Will battle the growing instability within his mind. For the first half of the season, he is a fairly minor character, showing up intermittently to listen to the worries and fears of both Will and Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne). For a show called Hannibal, we really don’t see that much of him.
But the show knows we know who Hannibal Lecter really is, and it takes great joy in teasing us as it slowly makes him more prominent in the story. Each beautifully cooked meal is a reminder that this man is pure evil. Who’s tenderloin is Jack eating? Who did Hannibal kill to get that pan seared steak? The anticipating is a killer: we want to see Hannibal be Hannibal.
Until we don’t.
And this is where the show turns. As the facade of Dr. Lecter slowly falls and we get glimpses and visions of the famous killer, we are left to dwell on the consequences. As Todd VanDerWerff brilliant details in his piece for the AV Club, this is a show obsessed with death and obsessed with making death meaningful. Finding the killer doesn’t bring resolution on Hannibal. Instead, the murders haunt the entire show and its characters. These 13 episodes are essentially the story of Will’s descent into madness as he tries to cope with the investigation and “resolution” to the Minnesota Shrike case that opened the season. As we realize just how big of a role Dr. Lecter has played, that descent becomes even more heartbreaking. This Hannibal isn’t an endearing, quotable, campy killer. He isn’t one of those fictional serial murderers that we secretly (or openly) want to get away with it. He is terrifying and truly scary.
I can’t even begin to describe how dark and menacing this show becomes as it nears its finale, but it is unlike anything I’ve seen on network TV (and really in any TV show). This sense of doom is aided by the brilliant cinematography, sound design, costuming, and set decoration. Everything is washed out grey and maroon. From the barren, wintery landscapes to Hannibal’s immaculate office, the imagery is always cold and always beautiful. The show is also incredibly violent. There is no shortage of blood and splatter, often shown spraying out of wounds in beautiful slow motion.
In particular, the crime scenes are exceedingly over-the-top. I said earlier that this show is focused on showy serial killers, and this comes across in these sequences. Bodies are artfully arranged, perfectly dissected, and presented like pieces in a museum. Their elaborate nature makes them decidedly unreal. Is it really possible for an aging serial killer to create a totem pole of bodies? Could a man really carve his back into wings of skin and hoist himself into the rafters of a barn? Hell no. Almost every one of these crime scenes is framed the same way. Low, extremely wide camera angles, with the body (or bodies) perfectly centered in the frame, often against a beautiful backdrop. They are surreal, beautiful, and grotesque. But why?
You could argue that Fuller and company are taking a little bit too much pleasure in these crime scenes. Are we equating these killers with artists? Should we take still shots of these bodies and hang them on our walls? Is the show violent for violence’s sake?
It is certainly a risky choice on the creators’ part. These crime scenes and the ridiculous way Will interprets them threatens to pull you out of the story. They are both deliriously fake and contrived. Lizz was instantly turned off by the leaps in logic that help Will solve these elaborate crimes. But I think this is exactly the point (and the show frequently pokes fun at these leaps. At one point, a couple of the other investigators joke about finally using science and reason to solve the crimes). The show is actually less about the crimes and their motivations than it is about their aftermath. And the aftermath is treated with startling realism. For me, it would actually be way more disturbing if the crime scenes were realistic at all. Considering the weight of the rest of the show, you need a little levity. The fact that the crime scenes themselves provide that levity certainly complicates things, but that’s what’s so twisted about this show.
While nothing will trump the final season of Mad Men for me, I can’t help but be nearly as excited for the next season of Hannibal. I really hope it finds an audience, but I also suppose it is understandable if it doesn’t. NBC also isn’t helping by making the show fairly difficult to access. It isn’t available in its entirety on Hulu or even the NBC website. For a struggling network with a genuinely awesome new show, you’d think they’d try to push it as hard as they could. Now that I’m caught up (through my own means), I think I’m going to try to catch the episodes live when they come back, which isn’t something I’ve done for a show in a long time.