Bryan Fuller developing a prequel TV series about Hannibal Lecter made no sense when it was first announced. With the warm and delightful Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, Fuller has cultivated a reputation for original, innovative projects, even if they didn’t last long. And networks continued to want to be in business with him, so why would he turn to a played-out anti-hero for his next project? Surely it would drown in Anthony Hopkins comparisons, network interference, and prequel-itis.
But Fuller deserved the benefit of the doubt, and based on this first episode, he’s earned it. Not only has he turned the prequel conceit into a new paradigm for the Lecter character to be examined in a fresh light, he’s addressing this dark material with sensitivity and intelligence. Despite some graphic imagery, Hannibal is more horrified by its violence than similar shows and emphasises the devastating toll that it takes on survivors and even the investigator.
Hannibal is set years before Thomas Harris’s first Lecter novel, Red Dragon, which alluded to the incarcerated serial killer consulting for the FBI. Once his own crimes were revealed, he was captured by FBI serial killer profiler Will Graham. Graham is also the protagonist of the TV series and played here by Hugh Dancy, and we discover that his profiling skill is due to immense empathy for victims and killers that has ravaged his psyche. Having seen and felt too many horrors, he has withdrawn from society except for lecturing at the FBI Academy. Graham is enlisted, reluctantly, by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to help with a new case. But when Graham again demonstrates his volatility, Crawford turns to another expert to work with Graham: psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).
Re-casting the adult Hannibal Lecter for television is both necessary and daring. Despite Hopkins’ menace being lost in his later, hammier performances, his is still the iconic take that permeated popular culture. Coupled with the character being withered from overexposure (Brett Ratner’s forgettable Red Dragon and the ill-considered young Lecter film, Hannibal Rising), this new series begged the question of why it should be made at all. Hopkins’s performance need not be the only one (Brian Cox played him first in Manhunter, after all), but there seemed little need for another any more.
Fuller’s response has been to remind us that Lecter was a character created for fiction, not the Silence of the Lambs film, and an alternative interpretation is entirely justified. And so he not only cast a formidable actor with a stable film career to bolster the chances of viewers forgetting Hopkins, he selected one who is radically different in virtually every way. Mikkelsen’s quiet, solemn performance elicits a more uncertain dread, and his build, nationality, and that remarkably pronounced facial structure are explicit reminders that this is a new Lecter. He presents Lecter’s refinement as ethereal rather than smug or pouting, and his Danish accent amidst an otherwise American cast reinforces that Lecter is an outsider, albeit a charming one.
But so is Graham, and Dancy conveys his roiling anxieties and overactive imagination as almost physical, churning within him except for rare moments of peace such as the time he spends with his dogs. Although there is some exposition in this pilot episode, by the end Graham nonetheless feels like a fully-realised person rather than the stereotypical eccentric investigator played by a talented actor cashing a pay cheque. Working with Fuller’s script, Dancy is a compelling gateway into this world where the threat of violence is ever-present, even if only in the mind.
Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) presents these violent images as horrifying but captivating, capturing the horrendous artistry that certain serial killers believe they are contributing to the world. But Hannibal doesn’t bombard us with these images, one-upping itself throughout for the sake of lurid sensation. The violent incidents, particularly at the climax, are raw and ugly, their consequences not remotely thrilling or suspenseful. So Lecter’s responses to them, the first unmistakable evidence that something is amiss with his psychology, are chilling rather than merely predictable.
Unfortunately, the rapid pacing of the show undermines some of that valuable contemplation. Many of the critics surprised by Hannibal‘s quality have noted its cable sensibility, and they’re correct. But it’s still hindered by the more relentless pace of network drama, so the first episode feels breathless, not allowing us to absorb the world being established. There are moments of silence and implication more common to premium drama here, such as a brief scene where Fishburne gently thumps a pinboard in frustration or Graham with his dogs, but they’re fleeting and too few. Hannibal certainly does seem more suited to cable, and could likely spread its wings there and demonstrate more of the thoughtfulness at the heart of the script.
Regardless, the question remains as to how sustainable the show is. How long can the characters credibly not notice Lecter’s odd behaviour, even if we, the viewer, don’t yet know whether he’s committed any crimes? Audiences who appreciate the show’s intelligence and sensitivity don’t want to groan at how stupid the characters are for not noticing their colleague’s psychopathic tendencies. Plus, can the show be both a procedural and a serialised character drama without the case of the week feeling like dead weight, like the early episodes of Justified? The rapid pace of this pilot begs for a long-running case that will allow for more nuance, and I hope Fuller embraces the serial potential of the show rather than sticking with formula.
Although there are a huge number of quality shows on right now, network TV is still frequently disappointing. Hannibal is a welcome relief from that trend, especially given its more distinctive contributions to the procedural format and the resurgent serial killer genre. But can it last more than one season? As with any quality show on network TV, it’s best to assume not and be surprised when it does. Hopefully we at least get a terrific 13-episode mini-series that subverts the notion that dried-up characters can’t be given a new lease of life.
Hannibal screens on Wednesdays at 9.45pm on Seven. Episodes are available streaming on Plus 7.