Earlier this year, as we welcomed FOX's "The Following" and A&E's "Bates Motel" to a blood-soaked TV landscape that already included "Criminal Minds," "Dexter," "Luther" and other shows that at least dabble in the serial killer arts, I wondered if perhaps I was simply tired of the whole genre. We were a couple of decades removed from "Silence of the Lambs," and it seemed like every single trope of serial killer fiction had been explored, made into cliche, and rendered unpleasant.
Then I watched NBC's creepy, haunting, smart, utterly gorgeous new series "Hannibal" — yet another Hannibal Lecter project, no less — and realized that it's not the genre that had gotten tired, but the execution of it. I went into "Hannibal" (it debuts tomorrow night at 10) dreading it and came away five episodes later thrilled by it.
So what makes "Hannibal" so special? Start with Bryan Fuller, adapting material from the first Lecter book, "Red Dragon," into a series about how FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) realized that respected psychiatrist and Bureau ally Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is in fact a cannibalistic sociopath.
Fuller's previous creations (including "Pushing Daisies," "Dead Like Me" and "Wonderfalls") have been a mixture of the whimsical with the macabre. There's little whimsy in "Hannibal," unless you count a couple of unnecessary "having an old friend for dinner" one-liners that tip their cap to the Anthony Hopkins version of the character. This is the material played, and taken, very seriously. There's dark imagination on display in the way that Graham's other targets (he chases a number of killers during the season, usually with the "help" of Dr. Lecter) treat and display their victims, but there's never a celebratory "awesome serial killers are awesome" tone to the show. It's clear that this is terrible, psychically traumatic violence that haunts Graham, Crawford and everyone else even casually touched by it. The show spends a lot of time — usually in therapy sessions between Graham and Lecter — discussing the emotions generated by killing (whether murder of an innocent victim or Graham shooting a man to stop his spree), but it's not exploitative or fetishistic. "Hannibal" is a show that's genuinely curious about what drives people to kill others, not because it seems cool — though Fuller and his writers have clearly spent a lot of time devising nightmare-inducing imagery — but because there has to be some kind of reason that these monsters exist, and that we're still fascinated by them in our popular culture.(*)
Fuller teams up with pilot director David Slade (who also helmed the gorgeous first episode of "Awake," which debuted in this timeslot about a year ago) to come up with an elegantly simple way to demonstrate both the general toll of this work on the FBI agents and what makes Will Graham special in particular. All the previous Lecter adaptations talked about how Graham (played in 1986's "Manhunter" by William Petersen and in 2002's "Red Dragon" by Ed Norton) learned to think like a serial killer; "Hannibal" actually shows it, by inserting Graham into flashbacks of the crimes being committed in place of the actual killer. There are some other visual flourishes that suggest how much this all weighs on Graham, but nothing works quite so well as simply seeing him coldly wielding a gun, knife or other instrument of death in place of the man he's trying to stop.
And Dancy is sensational as this version of Graham. There's talk of him being somewhere on the autism spectrum — "My horse is hitched to a post that is closer to Aspergers and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths," he tells Crawford — and Dancy has some experience playing that from his work on the movie "Adam"(**). But ultimately, it's a character that defies classification — another shrink describes him as "a unique cocktail of personality disorders and neuroses" — and Dancy tears into all the anger and curiosity and pain that drive such a man to both do what he does and try to stop doing it as quickly as he can.
(**) And, of course, Dancy's wife Claire Danes won every award available for playing autistic author and scientist Temple Grandin, and now plays a federal agent with her own mental health issues on "Homeland."
The character of Lecter is so much bigger than life that it's hard for even great performers to avoid being upstaged by whoever's playing him.(***) But this is a show where Graham is the unquestioned draw — which is no knock at all on Mads Mikkelsen. There's no way he's going to be able to outdo Hopkins (or Brian Cox from "Manhunter"), so he takes the character in a different, but still compelling, direction. Hard as it is to imagine given the man's extra-curricular activities, this is an understated Hannibal Lecter: a predator in a tailored suit who doesn't let you know you're in danger until it's far too late. Because he's going to spend a good chunk of time as an FBI ally, and because Fuller doesn't want Graham, Crawford and their colleagues (including "Wonderfalls" star Caroline Dhavernas as another FBI psychiatrist) to look like idiots, Lecter has to be plausible as someone they'd work alongside without suspecting something hinky. The Danish actor isn't asked to fake an American accent, and his natural speaking voice adds to Lecter's cultured, alien air and becomes part of the cover that lets him pass undetected by these professional serial killer spotters.
(***) Hopkins is in "Silence of the Lambs" for a tiny fraction of the time Jodie Foster is, yet both were nominated for, and won, Oscars in the lead performer categories. And when the "Hannibal" movie sequel was made, producers didn't blink at plowing forward without Foster, where it's hard to imagine the movie being made if Hopkins said no.
Fishburne is terrific as well, particularly later in the season when his real-life wife Gina Torres is introduced as Crawford's wife, who has a secret she's more comfortable sharing with Dr. Lecter than her own husband.
Over the course of the five episodes I've seen, Fuller and company do an impressive job of balancing Lecter's machinations, Graham's emotional problems, and the other killers that Graham and Crawford have to stop, in a way that never descends into formula. Though some bad guys are dispatched in a single episode, there's never a feeling of Serial Killer of the Week; rather, each one becomes part of the larger game Graham doesn't realize he and Lecter are playing, and a part of the show's commentary on the mentality that drives these horrifying acts.
By coming so late to the party, after "The Following" — which is inferior in every way, but which also tries to goose its audience every five minutes with "shocking" plot twists and revelations that the latest character you never expected to be a follower is, in fact, a follower — has established itself as a hit, "Hannibal" is starting behind the eight ball. It's also airing on NBC, and in a timeslot that was once the best in television for drama and is now one of the absolute worst.(****) (If NBC had genuine hope for the show to succeed, it would have tried it on Tuesdays, in relative proximity to "The Voice.") There's some hope that the brand name might be enough to bring in viewers by itself, but the last time NBC thought that about a property made most famous in the early '90s, it was "The Firm," which was banished to Saturdays in short order.
(****) NBC, Thursdays at 10, 1981-2009: "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "ER." NBC, Thursdays at 10, 2009-present: "Southland," "The Jay Leno Show," "The Marriage Ref," "The Apprentice," "30 Rock" and "Outsourced," "Prime Suspect," "The Firm," "Awake," "Rock Center," "Do No Harm," and now "Hannibal." Some good shows in there, but the earth has absolutely been salted.
It would be a shame if "Hannibal" got caught up in its network's ongoing troubles, or a sense of "been there, done that" from fans of this type of story. "Hannibal" is the last of this season's serial killer shows. It's also, by a very wide margin, the best.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org