Trying to get people to watch Hannibal is as difficult as trying to convince someone to change their political beliefs. It’s frustrating, fruitless, and ends with both people mad at each other. Seriously, this is how it goes nearly every time I try to tell a friend they should give it a shot:
ME: Hannibal is the best show on TV right now.
ANY RANDOM FRIEND (ARF) : What? Fuck you.
ME: No, really! It’s so good! It’s on the same level as The Wire and Breaking Bad.
ARF: Stop talking right now.
ME: Come on, give it a chance.
ARF: But it’s a network show. A show on NBC for fucks sake! NBC is the worst.
ME: I know, I know but…
ARF: And nobody gives a shit about Hannibal Lecter anymore. We all stopped caring decades ago.
ME: That’s what I thought too but…
ARF: Besides, there’s only one Hannibal and that’s Anthony Hopkins.
ME: Well, remember Brian Cox played the role first in Manhunter.
ARF: Huh? What? Oh yeah, I don’t care.
ME: Just listen though, it’s an incredibly smart show. It’s really creepy and atmospheric. The dialogue is fantastic. Acting is great. And it fucking pushes the boundaries of what you can get away with on Network TV. You gotta give it a try. Just watch the first episode please?
ARF: I don’t know. Maybe. Whatever. What did you think of last week’s Game of Thrones?
And so it goes. I understand your concerns. I didn’t have high hopes for the show either. Like Fargo, it seemed like nothing more than an attempt to cash in on name recognition. Or of Network executives snorting coke and saying things like, “we need a new serial killer show, there ain’t enough of those, why don’t we bring back that cannibal guy? People like him right?” So, I get it. Hannibal has no business being as good as it is. Hell, it has no business being good at all. And yet it is. It’s more than good. It’s one of the creepiest, most fascinating dramas ever made. It’s the only show that I would ever even consider comparing to Breaking Bad or The Wire. Believe me, I don’t make that comparison lightly. You need to give it a shot.
What if we remove the stigma that’s attached to it and I try pitching it to you like this? Forget Silence of the Lambs, forget Hopkins, forget the Thomas Harris books. Put all your associations with the character of Hannibal Lecter aside and just accept the set up at face value. Okay? So here’s the pitch: there’s this FBI profiler. His name is Will Graham and he’s played by that great British actor Hugh Dancy. Will is on the spectrum and his main skill is empathy. He’s able to look at a murder scene and immediately place himself in the mindset of the killer. This takes a horrific toll on his psyche. But his boss, Jack Crawford, played by LAURENCE FUCKING FISHBURNE doesn’t care because Will is good at solving crimes and his methods save lives. Still, he’s persuaded to have Will consult with a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist of great renown. This doctor takes a liking to Will, sees within him a kindred spirit and the two of them form a special bond. Trouble is, this psychiatrist is also a notorious serial killer, one that Will and Jack have been hunting for years. And his name is Hannibal Lecter.
Preposterous? Sure. And in lesser hands that’s all it would be. It would be as dumb and depraved as The Following, a show that thinks obscene violence and moronic plot twists equals intensity and suspense. But show runner Bryan Fuller is playing a different game. He knows the deck is stacked against him so he plays around with the conventions of a typical crime procedural while also messing with our preconceived notions about how these characters will behave. He treats the show less as a horror thriller and more as a psychological drama about madness and co-dependency. It’s also shot exquisitely. You’ve never seen gruesome murder scenes look so…beautiful, which serves to make them even more horrific than the average violence you see on most thriller shows.
He’s helped by the performers. Dancy is terrific as Will. The ‘on-the-spectrum-but-brilliant-and-visonary-detective’ has become a huge cliche in recent years and yet Fuller and Dancy are able to make Will into a real character, not a cheap trick. Fishburne hasn’t been this good in years. His Jack Crawford is a flawed and often obtuse man but one with deep wells of humanity and compassion. Bosses on crime shows are never this complex and nuanced. Caroline Dhavernas plays Dr. Alana Bloom, a colleague of the cannibalistic doctor and friend to Will and Jack. Alana isn’t a love interest or merely something pretty to look at. She has her own agenda and the show has never forgotten that. Then there’s the long list of guest stars who have stood out over the course of the show’s two season run. Actors such as Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Cynthia Nixon, Katherine Isabelle, Michael Pitt, Amanda Plummer, Lance Henriksen, Anna Chlumsky, and even Molly Shannon. Fuller has a knack for casting actors in roles you’d never expect them to take and then allowing them to shine.
The star of the show however is, of course, Mads Mikkelsen as the title character. He succeeds largely because he doesn’t try to copy Anthony Hopkins at all. His Hannibal is uniquely his own creation. While Hopkins was flamboyant and extravagant, Mikkelsen is restrained and subtle. He can say more with a shift of his head or a twitch in his eye than Hopkins ever could by licking his lips. He also portrays Hannibal as sympathetic and even relatable without ever forgetting the monster he truly is. In other words, he’s absolutely terrifying and…oh fuck it I’m just gonna say it…better than Anthony Hopkins ever was in the role.
Now, this next question goes out to you horror fans out there. Do you like violence to mean something? Do you like gore to have a purpose and not just be there because that’s what the genre requires? Have you had it up to here with ‘torture porn’? Then Hannibal is the show for you. The violence is there to serve the story and move it forward, not to be the main focus. Each crime scene is there to plunge us deeper into the minds of some profoundly disturbed people and to even try to understand them. That’s what the two leads do after all. Each murder is a way for Hannibal and Will to look into their own fractured brains in a way they never have before. Episodes are not about the specific details of a crime and how to solve it but about why the crime occurred in the first place and about how the main characters struggle to process it. Bryan Fuller took the police procedural and made it into an introspective psycho-drama. A drama far more insightful and inventive than any of the previous Hannibal Lecter stories were.
It’s also funny as hell. Fuller has a dry wit, one that he displayed in the short lived but wonderful Wonderfalls, and he doesn’t leave that behind just because Hannibal is an infinitely darker show. Take the way Hannibal prepares meals for his guests. Camera shots linger on each meal, making them look oh-so-tasty but Fuller never lets us forget what (or who) Hannibal is serving to people. Our mouths water and then we laugh at ourselves for being taken in so easily and forgetting the show’s goddamn premise. Hannibal also makes a lot of quips that would cause groans on any other show but illicit genuine laughs here. It’s a tightrope act that Fuller and Mikkelsen walk to near perfection.
Obviously, Hannibal has its fans. The show begins it’s third season tonight despite absurdly low ratings. It’s cheap enough and critically adored enough that NBC keeps renewing it. And it’s few followers watch the show religiously. This post isn’t for those people. This post is for those of you who have refused to give in yet. Those of you who have wondered whether this might be a good show after all. Those of you who constantly bemoan the lack of good TV programs yet refuse to look in odd places. Those of you who have a hard time accepting that network shows can be as good–in fact better–than cable shows. Those of you who have yet to discover what it’s like for actors and a show runner to take something old and out of date and make it feel completely new and invigorating. I’m speaking to you people. It’s time to put your worries aside and dive into Hannibal. I promise you won’t regret it.