Thursday Night Snack : NBC's Hannibal

It seemed like a bad idea, but NBC's "Hannibal" might have given a boost to the network's Thursday night lineup.

NBC is in the doldrums. Last place, dwindling viewership, their flagship shows (30 Rock, The Office) expired or expiring, their best show (Community) on the down and out, their former funny man (Jay Leno) all but dissipated into irrelevancy. The sole bright spot in a lineup so riddled with blunders and banality is Jimmy Fallon, who was recently promised the mantle of The Tonight Show host, though we all remember how that turned out for Conan.

How does NBC kick-start their pulse and climb out of last place? Apparently they offer yet another reiteration of the Hannibal Lecter mythos, a well most had thought dried up at least a decade ago. It doesn’t sound like a good idea, but the show has thus far proved to be some kind of brilliant.
Aside from its ill-conceived title–it will inevitably draw comparisons to Ridley Scott’s confused, misguided film of the same name–Hannibal has eschewed most of the usual pedantic snores of network cop dramas.

The show is ostensibly an adaptation of Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first Lecter novel, though Hannibal calculatedly veers into unknown territory. It alters characters considerably, most notably turning a sleazy tabloid journalist (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Brett Ratner film adaptation of Red Dragon) into a sleazy young woman with blood-red hair.

The cast and crew is an attractive amalgamation of upper-second-tier players: Cannes Best Actor-winner Mads Mikkelson plays the titular shrink, with a face subtle and subversive enough to conjure the most sinister implications and with a penchant for slow burning devastation; Laurence Fishbourne, whose turn as Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy gave Generation X their Yoda, is Jack Crawford, head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI; relative unknown Hugh Dancy, who provided some slight sense of grounding in the insidiously slow Martha Marcy May Marlene, is Will Graham, the Clarice Starling of the show; and series frontman David Slade, arguably the most credible of the David Fincher-lite legion, co-produced the show and directed the first and third episodes. NBC even got Michael Rymer, a superstar in the nerd world for his revelatory direction in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica mini-series, to helm the second episode.

The pilot begins with Hannibal Lecter at the advent of his cannibalistic affinity, and none of the other characters possessing any notion of the evil that walks among them. It takes a while to get used to the idea of Dr. Lecter’s sinister proclivities being so secret, but it provides a sense of suspense that has eluded the character since Anthony Hannibal devoured scenery with relish in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar-monopolizing adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs.

One of the most visually-assured and thematically-fertile network pilots since David Lynch wrapped Laura Palmer in plastic, the pilot effectively establishes the leitmotifs, the visual quirks and gimmicks, the character arcs, and the creeping dread that pervades the rest of the season. Slade throws us into the mangled mind of Will Graham, a professor at the FBI training academy in Quantico and sometimes FBI special consultant— a genius blessed (and cursed) with the ability of complete empathy: Will can get into the head of anyone, channel their thoughts and understand them as they understand themselves. This, as you can imagine, causes him a bit of trauma—nightmares, cold sweat, anxiety attacks, inability to socialize. So Jack Crawford, who wants Will to head a case no one else can crack, asks Dr. Lecter to profile and treat Will.

Slade visualizes Will's mental process deftly, in vivid detail: crimson blood stains peeling off of walls, off of floors, becoming arterial and reentering the bodies of murder victims, time going backwards as Will steps into the mind of the killer. He then proceeds to "kill" the victims himself, orally taking notes on the killer and his motives.

 It's not a very scary pilot, and the ending is abrupt, but Slade and company bump and set the flagitious ball for Rymer, whose second episode builds on the pilot’s foundation. Mikkelson approaches Lecter, one of the most iconic of American characters, with as much dexterous subtlety as Anthony Hopkins approached him with delicious camp. The camera may linger on him for a few long seconds as we hear Will talk about killers and their motives with FBI Director of Behavioral Studies Jack Crawford. Hannibal will stand stoic, almost ascetic, and a smile will oh-so-slightly start to spread across his smooth face. It's an insidiously minimalist performance. 

What makes the second episode so wonderful and so, so creepy is the way the writers take the pilot’s climax and denouement and elaborate, at once elucidating and obscuring the motives and consequences of a serial killer. They turn grief and mental depravity into a tragic motif for the rest of the series. One fleeting moment becomes a corrosive intruder in Will's soul. It eats away at him, destroys him. Rymer shows an even more articulate sense of timing and composition than Slade, filling the frame with morbid imagery but never slipping into over-saturation. The show has the cinematography of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, colors bold and deep and backgrounds rendered in stunning depth. It's melancholic in the most gorgeous way.

But the real reason to tune in to Hannibal every week is Hugh Dancy. Other than Vera Farmiga (Norma Bates on A & E’s Bates Motel) no other actor this season has displayed such intricate layers, such conflict and inner turmoil. Dancy seems to quiver in close ups, like his eyes are about to rupture and his soul pour out of his sockets. With no iconic performance to distance himself from, Dancy is free to interpret the previously under-written Graham any way he likes. He upstages his peers with restrained degradation.

Hannibal airs Thursday nights at 10pm on NBC.

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