June 21, 2013



As this new era of television drama has developed, people have talked wistfully about the broadcast networks airing shows with the distinctiveness and stylization (and darkness) we now associate with cable, but really that show already exists, and it’s NBC’s HANNIBAL.  It may very well be the damnedest thing to appear on one of the old-line networks since Twin Peaks more than 20 years ago, and for all its flaws–and they run very deep–it has a down-to-the-bone daring and commitment to its own aesthetic that makes The Following and other supposedly “audacious” network shows look like the fast-food genre machines they are.

It’s not easy to one-up Thomas Harris when it comes to unrelenting violent perversity, and yet Bryan Fuller’s take on the author’s material may have done just that.  Hannibal exists in the period of the Harris universe that predates Red Dragon (and thus also Silence of the Lambs, although confusingly the show shares its title with the Silence sequel), before Hannibal Lecter (played here by Mads Mikkelsen) attacked and nearly killed FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and before Lecter was incarcerated for his serial murders.  While Will was presented as an emotional mess in the Harris novel, institutionalized after Lecter’s assault and profoundly conflicted by his ability to inhabit the thought processes of brutal killers, he was a functioning human being with a wife and children; Fuller’s conceit is to present him as not just a basket case long before those events, but one who’s actually suffering from an encephalitis that’s affected his brain, undermining his ability to distinguish between hallucination and reality.  Lecter, for his part, manipulates Will’s spiritual and physical illnesses to turn him into a patsy for the murders he himself has committed–and one who truly believes, for a time, that he could have committed those crimes.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Fuller, Supervising Producer Scott Nimerfro and Steve Lightfoot, and directed by David Slade, was all of a piece with the episodes that preceded it, and brought the current arc to a conclusion.  Will’s encephalitis was finally diagnosed, with the help of Dr. Bloom (Catherine Dhavemas), who in a different kind of show would be his love interest, but whether under its influence or not, Will was still seen by just about everyone, including his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), as someone who had spent too much time inside the heads of the killers he hunted, and become a “copy-cat” who had duplicated the styles of those murders–those duplicative crimes actually being Lecter’s–and held in custody in a familiar criminal asylum.  This all set up the last scene of the season, which niftily reversed the iconic set-piece of the Harris books and films to have Lecter facing Will Graham on the other side of those bars.

Fuller has talked about Stanley Kubrick being a major influence on the style of Hannibal (the first episode included an elaborate homage to The Shining‘s classic bathroom scene), and that was evident throughout the season, with its lengthy, hushed, visually static dialogue sequences and near-constant use of buzzing, humming ambient tones of music.  To this, Fuller added his own extravagant brand of visual stylization–seen in a more whimsical vein in his Pushing Daisies–especially in the hallucinations and in the killings that Will (and Lecter) were trying to solve, featuring such grisly motifs as totem poles of body parts, faces carved in half and especially the bodies carefully impaled on stag horns by the killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs and his various imitators.  The result not only flirted with self-parody, but often crossed the line, especially because this kind of intense moodiness doesn’t lend itself to being interrupted by commercials every 7-9 minutes.

Many Stephen King fans (very much including Stephen King himself) despised Kubrick’s The Shining because of its extreme stylization and lack of conventional scares, and Fuller faced an even greater degree of difficulty, in a way, because he doesn’t have Kubrick’s freedom to create a purely personal work of popular art, instead having to deliver a show that, while loaded with idiosyncratic, confounding touches, still works as a piece of mass-market entertainment.  It didn’t always come together.  After a while, while Will had the excuse of being mentally ill, the other FBI agents, especially Crawford, seemed like morons for not even questioning the guy interacting with them daily who looked and sounded like Count Dracula and had an enthusiasm for cooking and fondling organ meat that went beyond the merely fetishistic.  For that matter, the endless sequences of Lecter cooking his storied, borderline-disgusting meals were repeated so frequently and at such length that some weeks, Hannibal resembled a particularly odd piece of programming on The Food Channel.

Fuller worked too hard to include Harris characters like Dr. Chilton (Rene Esparza) in the show, and had not just a proto-Lecter character (Eddie Izzard’s Dr. Gideon) but a particularly clumsy Clarice Starling clone (Anna Chlumsky’s Miriam Lass).  Plotlines were sometimes dropped mid-air (the fatal illness of Crawford’s wife), and sometimes so enigmatic as to make no sense at all (Gillian Anderson’s colleague and therapist to Lecter, played in such a mannered, zombified way that for several episodes I genuinely thought she might not really exist, like Hannibal Lecter’s own version of Fight Club).  Although the acting was very skilled in the way that Fuller clearly wanted, some of the performances, especially by Mikkelsen and Fishburne, were frustratingly one-note.

Nevertheless, for all its longueurs and self-conscious strangeness, Hannibal has originality to burn.  That hasn’t helped it in the ratings, where it’s resembled cable drama–and not the Walking Dead/Game of Thrones kind–by drawing miniscule ratings, able to survive to a second season only because its international co-production financial structure allows NBC to pay a comparatively tiny license fee for it.   Considering where Season 1 ended, it will be fascinating to see how Fuller digs his way back to the Harris universe (Fuller has announced his hope and intention of reaching the events of Red Dragon and–if rights can be worked out–Silence of the Lambs itself), since Will Graham now more or less knows that Lecter is a serial killer and is himself behind bars.  The solutions may or may not make sense, but they’ll no doubt be fascinating to observe–and even more fascinating is that we’ll be watching them on the network of The Voice and Chicago Fire.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."