As if one new TV series designed as a prequel/reboot of an iconic serial killer movie franchise (A&E’s ‘Bates Motel‘) weren’t enough, NBC attempts to pull off the same trick with ‘Hannibal’, which brings cinema’s most infamous evil psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, to the small screen. Given NBC’s track record, and the inherent limitations that any major broadcast network faces with material this dark, I’ll be honest that I went into the show with pretty low expectations. Color me surprised, therefore, that last Thursday’s pilot episode was pretty damn terrific.
Lecter of course became a pop culture icon after Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning adaptation of ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ in 1991. However, the character originated in the Thomas Harris novel ‘Red Dragon’ (which was first adapted by Michael Mann for the excellent 1986 film ‘Manhunter’, and then far less effectively remade under the book’s original title by Brett Ratner in 2002). Although set in the present day, the new ‘Hannibal’ series functions as a prequel that takes place prior the events of ‘Red Dragon’, and before Lecter’s capture or imprisonment.
The show’s title is somewhat misleading, as the lead character here is actually FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who has an unparalleled talent for empathizing with and understanding serial killers. Upon visiting crime scenes, he can visualize exactly how events played out, because he can fall into the killers’ mindsets and think as they do. This often takes a serious psychological toll on Graham himself. In the premiere episode, called ‘Aperitif’, he investigates the kidnappings and murders of several college-age girls, all of whom had internal organs removed and eaten by the killer. To assist the case, and hopefully to keep Graham’s own mental stability in check, his FBI superior Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) enlists the help of brilliant psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (‘Casino Royale’ villain Mads Mikkelsen), who isn’t even introduced until halfway through the episode.
Obviously, due to more than two decades of pop culture baggage associated with the character, we in the audience already know that Lecter is a cannibalistic serial killer. There’s no getting around that, and the episode doesn’t attempt to hide it. However, no one else in the story knows this yet. And Lecter is not the cannibal killer being hunted here. That would be a blue collar psycho called Garrett Jacob Hobbs. Before they capture him, Lecter imitates one of Hobbs’ murders to toy with Graham (Graham can instantly tell that it’s a copycat) and tips off the killer that the FBI is coming just to see how things will play out.
The Hobbs case is discussed as backstory in the ‘Red Dragon’ novel and movie adaptations. The show also makes a number of subtle nods to other characters and events in the fictional Lecter universe that fans may pick up on. Dancy is excellent as the tormented Graham, and Mikkelsen (though his accent is a little thick) makes a suitably creepy Lecter. (A breakfast scene where he feeds Graham “sausage” made out of his victim’s lungs is deliciously unsettling.)
At least as seen in the pilot episode, the success of the show so far is that it doesn’t play out as just a spin-off of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ movie, and Mikkelsen never attempts to mimic Anthony Hopkins’ famous portrayal. He plays Hannibal Lecter, as the character was originally written in the first couple of Thomas Harris novels – before Hopkins grew increasingly hammy in the unfortunate sequels, and before Harris tailored his lame follow-up books to cash in on the movies’ popularity.
The series is produced by Bryan Fuller of ‘Pushing Daisies’ and ‘Dead Like Me’, whose ‘Wonderfalls’ star Caroline Dhavernas appears in a supporting role. The pilot episode was directed by David Slade (‘30 Days of Night‘), and is incredibly slick, stylish and suspenseful. I don’t know whether subsequent episodes will be able to maintain the same polish and intensity, but I’m eager to find out. I’m fully onboard already. This is the first NBC show that I’ve actually been excited about in I don’t know how long. Unfortunately, that probably means that it’s doomed to be canceled in three weeks.