d. David Slade
The serial killer/murder-of-the-week genre of television has become so utterly formulaic and stagnant that I literally cannot stand to watch it. NCIS, CSI, Bones, Castle, The Following, and all the countless others that have come and gone in the past decade all seem to be replicating the same two or three formulas hoping to draw in the same audience of consumers who seemingly uncontrollably lap it up. The most intriguing of these shows for a time was Dexter but the silliness and improbability of the character and his situation overrode any meaningful drama and character development by it's fifth season.
Hannibal enters the fray from Bryan Fuller, whose previous beloved but short-lived series Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me explored death with a sense of purpose and meaning for the characters involved. One gets a sense that, week to week, all the murder and depravity on a CSI or Profiler have little impact or consequence on the show's characters, that each subsequent week their threshold for the morbid resets (much like that of the viewer).
Hannibal carries on Fuller's intrigue with the impact of death primarily with its main character Will Graham. Graham is a professor of profiling at Quantico, though never an FBI agent himself, the barrier being his self-identified form of aspergers which gives him heightened empathy towards others. In your average of-the-week show this would be celebrated gift, a super power that allows the show's protagonist to understand the killer and his/her motivation and triumphantly capture the bad guy. Here it has a definite and cumulative toll on Graham's psyche, something his faculty adviser at Quantico warns FBI Agent Jack Crawford about when he enlists him on a multiple missing persons case they can't crack.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter comes into the fold as a special consultant when Graham can't seem to completely crack the psyche of the killer. Lecter takes an immediate interest in Graham, whose ability and condition are psychologically unique and fascinating to him. The show doesn't dance around the fact that Lecter is a murderer and cannibal, and uses it wisely here as Graham observes one of his victims bodies and can barely trace any emotional connection to the death beyond the cannibalistic desire and the lack of pathology otherwise. Later Lecter kills another, mimicking Graham's active case but in a manner that allows Graham to see instantly that it's a copycat killing and that it's flaws in its replication allow him to see what he couldn't in his case before. Lecter is in essence mentoring Graham through murder. It seems to me that Lecter is playing with Graham in order to see if he has what it takes to figure him out, thus a psychological chess game begins that Graham has no idea yet that he's playing.
I'm not exceptionally well-versed in Thomas Harris' novels, although I've seen The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal once a piece. Manhunter, Michael Mann's moody adaptation of Harris' Red Dragon, is a particular favourite, and as such I can't help but compare Hugh Dancy's Will Graham to Willaim Petersen's from the film as in both cases they play a character traumatized by his work. Dancy measures up, and in the context of the show's characterization of Graham, he excels. Dancy captures the apprehension and nervousness that Graham has about engaging in profiling killers, already too aware of the toll it has upon him and the nightmares that plague him. He finds respite in rescuing stray dogs, which is his oasis from the darkness he faces (Manhunter's Will Graham had love for his wife to hold onto, which is something this show's Will Graham may be incapable of).
Though unused in Manhunter, Harris established in Red Dragon that Lecter and Graham were partners of a sort working together to solve crimes before Graham found Lecter out. Though Harris has explored Lecter more extensively in earlier and later iterations, he's never gone back to this pairing. In many ways this Hannibal TV series serves as a prequel to Red Dragon. Equally, if not for the decades between them, it tonally feels like a precursor to Mann's film. The show is moody, a prominent but spare soundtrack exacerbating this effect. When Dancy's Graham goes into a sort of trance as he assesses a crime scene and a murder victim, the show visualizes his mental process in a reverse and slow-motion technique. It teeters on gimmick but ultimately lands on the favourable side of stylistic choice.
The show uses what you know about the characters already, respecting the mythology of Harris' characters, but isn't bound by it completely. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (best known perhaps as Le Chiffre from Casino Royale) brings a less jubilant performance to Hannibal than what Anthony Hopkins ultimately wound up delivering in later films. Mikkelsen's curious Danish accent, his glossy, unflinching poker face, and very prim posture bring a nefariousness that's subtle, in contrast to Hopkin's increasing overtness from film to film. Mikkelsen and Dancy together make an exceptionally compelling odd couple, precisely because Graham cannot figure Lecter out and he's so unaware of how Lecter toys with him, and although the audience knows he's doing it, like Graham, we don't understand his motivations.
The pilot, Apéritif, introduces all the primary characters for the series, but it doesn't given them much other than an introduction. Laurence Fishburne's Jack Crawford isn't given much other than framework to start with, but he has a commanding presence nonetheless... it's what he does. It will be interesting to see how (or if) he develops further. Hetienne Park's forensics expert Beverly Katz also stands out, strikingly, as Katz is a beaming, excitable character all too in love with her job (perhaps a pointed commentary on all the wisecracking crime scene investigators on other programs?). Yet she brings a sense of life to the show without being an utter cliche.
I'm fascinated with this show, partly because it's playing with familiar characters in new ways, and also because it's taking the genre on a much needed ride. It's doing so in a stylistic manner that almost guarantees it won't meet success on network, because it's too different. The series' 13 episodes are already complete, but even if that's it for the show, if it continues to transcend formula every week as the pilot does, I can be happy with just that.