There is a Patton Oswalt joke about the Star Wars prequels – go ahead, give it a listen – in which Oswalt berates Lucas for making the dull origin stories of exciting characters. “Hey, do you like ice cream? Well here’s a big bag of rock salt.” It concludes with Oswalt ranting “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHERE THE STUFF I LOVE COMES FROM, I JUST LOVE THE STUFF I LOVE.”
That attitude doesn’t apply to Hannibal.
It’s not that the new NBC show, which recently concluded its first season, is better than Manhunter, Silence of The Lambs, Hannibal (The Movie), or Red Dragon, although it may indeed be better than some of those. It’s that show runner Bryan Fuller realized that a three-page bit of back story from the Thomas Harris novels was actually more dramatic than the front story. Hannibal was, at one time, a psychiatrist consulting for the FBI with his arch-nemesis Will Graham. He was also an active cannibal. It’s almost funny to realize that before this show, the character had spent most of his fictional time in jail.
Hannibal in this series is a different creature from the increasingly hammy Anthony Hopkins. At first, I found Mads Mikkelsen wooden. Gradually, I realized he was actually extremely subtle. The moments that Hannibal expresses emotion are notable for their extreme rarity and telling context.
Hannibal isn’t the main character, though. That honour goes to Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who is as I mentioned a consultant; in the pilot, he’s lured from his teaching job by Larry Fishburne because he has an uncanny ability to empathize with serial killers. Hannibal becomes his analyst. Those two points – Graham’s empathy and his psychopathic shrink – become this series’ greatest strengths. When he struts onto a crime scene, Graham enters a kind of Empathy Mode where he gets into the killer’s mind. This allows the show some great liberties with visualization that it exploits adroitly. Furthermore, Graham’s empathy with horrible minds makes him increasingly fragile as the show goes on, an arc that propels a lot of drama, and keeps visual interest even away from the crime scenes.
But if Graham’s visions lend the show its visual flair, it is grounded in riveting dialogue, thanks to the emphasis on talk therapy. The Graham-Lecter discussions are captivating, but many other shrinks are in play: Graham has a crush on a co-worker who is also a shrink (Caroline Dhavernas), and many amazing scenes are of Lecter visiting his own therapist, played by Gillian Anderson. The dialogue is generally very strong; it reminded me of the late, great In Treatment.
I suppose I shouldn’t conclude without mentioning dramatic irony. It’s interesting to see a whole show powered by it. We know going in, by the name, that this show features one of fiction’s most renowned killers. How frustrating, then, to see so many lawmen completely unaware of it. It makes you want to yell at the screen at times.
You might assume, like I had, that a show with this name on NBC had to be a G-rated candy-ass cynical cash-in. It is not. It will surprise you. Watch it.