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Easily one of the biggest surprises of the season, Hannibal arrives on NBC and manages — for one of the few times in memory — to take what essentially is an overly familiar procedural and make it feel like a cable series.
Whereas The Following on Fox has a heavy hand and seems too energetically gleeful about the violence it abounds in, Hannibal is beautifully shot (by director and executive producer David Slade) and is a surprisingly thoughtful look at how darkness — overwhelming darkness, to be precise — haunts an FBI profiler named Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, The Big C).
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Graham was once in the field — he even worked homicides back in the day — but when we meet him in the pilot, he’s lecturing at FBI headquarters, a man with special gifts but not particularly social nor warm, suffering from something we’re not yet aware of. He’s brilliant, as all television profilers must be, as well as completely misunderstood for his unorthodox style. If that sounds familiar — and it should if you watch any television at all — it gets framed and focused more artfully in the hands of series creator and writer Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, etc.).
What Fuller does is not make Graham a hero or god. He’s a flawed man with a gift — and that gift haunts him with lurid dreams. When Graham is selected by his boss, Dr. Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, to track down a serial killer, Graham nearly implodes from the trauma of the effort. To keep him in the field, Crawford sends Graham to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who eventually joins the team.
Now, the conceit in Hannibal is that Fuller has reversed things a bit. This is a prequel to the Thomas Harris books, so Hannibal Lecter has yet to become a mad serial killer, an ingenious bastard who redefines notorious. Except that we, the viewing audience, knows exactly who he is and will become (if he isn’t already, which is another nice trick). Even though the series is called Hannibal, it’s very much a vehicle for Dancy as Graham. And he is immediately superb in the role, taking Fuller’s vision and bringing to life a nuanced and fascinating character.
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The visual appeal of Hannibal is essential. You can turn on any gory crime procedural and see some of the most shocking violence on television. Saturated with dark reds and browns, Hannibal very rarely comes into the bright lights of the day, and that eerie tone is reflected in many of the visually traumatic and scary scenes — none of them used as a method to shock, a trait of The Following.
Slade and Fuller employ any number of tricks in reconstructing crimes and crime scenes. There’s a sophisticated touch here that seems more at home on cable, which is a welcome effort for broadcast. And you have to wonder why NBC seems to have been so reluctant to tout the series.
Hannibal very nicely integrates the Lecter character almost as an afterthought. By the end of the first hour, it has managed to make Dancy, Fishburne and Mikkelsen a formidable trio of characters, and each actor responds in kind with strong, engaging performances. Another sign of a good series is the fact that beyond the main three, the supporting cast is filled with solid actors and — more important — strong, vivid characters.
If you were expecting some kind of retread of the film series, forget it. This might not exactly qualify as a complete “reimagining” by Fuller, but the prequel expands the scope entirely. Are there tons of serial killers on television? Of course. And there probably will be for a long time, since people are so fascinated by them. Do we have too many bloody procedurals on our hands? Yep. But here’s a drama that ratchets up the quality in the most surprising of ways.
Going well beyond expectations, Hannibal is a series that at one point seemed forgotten in NBC’s schedule (it’s starting late and ending in the summer) but could end up quickly becoming one of its most important dramas.
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