March 1, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Hannibal”


HANNIBAL:  Friday 10PM on NBC

With the exception of Twin Peaks, HANNIBAL may well be the strangest drama ever to air on a broadcast network.  Created for television by Bryan Fuller as a prequel in the Thomas Harris canon to Red Dragon, it mixes mannered, hushed, often extended dialogue sequences with loving, lingering scenes of elegant but vaguely unpleasant food being prepared by the titular cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), and exquisitely realized, hallucinatory tableaux of mass murder and extreme brutality.  Both brilliant and a stupendously self-satisfied, relentlessly perverse bore, it has far more in common with transgressive indie cinema than network primetime.  The ratings last season were atrocious, but thanks to the extremely low network license fee (it’s largely financed by foreign co-producers) and a collection of knockout reviews, the series is back.

The second season began with an action sequence so much like a conventional TV fight scene–and thus un-Hannibal— that one’s first thought was that it had to be some character’s dream, but it turned out to be a flashforward to events that will happen 12 weeks from now, presumably in the season finale, perhaps a promise from the producers to NBC that the show will eventually arrive in a place more comfortable for average viewers.  With that in abeyance for the immediate future, the series returned to something like its old self.  At the conclusion of last season, Lecter had successfully manipulated FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to commitment in a criminal mental asylum for a series of murders actually committed, of course, by Lecter.  (Along the way, he exploited a neural condition of Will’s that gave him hallucinations.)   The series resumed with Will in the same institution where we know Lecter will ultimately end up, under the direction of the odious Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raul Esparza).  He’s more in his right mind than he had been last season, although still unable to reconstruct just how Hannibal framed him.  Meanwhile Will’s boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), however sympathetic to Will, still believes him guilty, and being in need of an expert profiler, has taken on Lecter as his newest consultant, while Will’s friend and colleague Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) works to free him.

The episode, written by Fuller and fellow Executive Producer Steve Lightfoot and directed by Tim Hunter, was a bit less bizarre than previous hours, because although Will had his fantasies and nightmares (most of them featuring his totemic stag), he wasn’t the mess of last season, giving the drama more of a center than it had when Will seemed far crazier than Lecter.  The serial-killer-of-the-week storyline started late in the episode and will continue next week, so it didn’t really hit its bizarre imagery (the fiend injects his victims with silica, among other things, to preserve the skin tone and shape of the body after death) until the end of the hour.

Hannibal has its share of partisans, at least among the commentariat, partly because it’s just so damn odd, with a texture and style different from every other show in its supposed genre.  That is indeed worthy of praise (the cinematography and production design of many episodes last season were award-worthy), but the show often seems to indulge in sadism for its own sake, and it’s made the same mistake as Harris’s “Hannibal” novel and to a lesser extent the resulting film (which take place in a much later time period than the series, following the action of The Silence of the Lambs), by luxuriating in Lecter’s extravagant, high-toned brutality and sacrificing the moral figure of the saga’s detective in the process.  Mikkelsen’s near-somnolent Hannibal is an acquired, pardon the expression, taste, and Dancy spent much of last season acting like he was undergoing television’s longest bout of heroin withdrawal (the suggestion in the premiere is that this season he’ll be somewhat more stable), while Fishburne and Gillian Anderson (as Hannibal’s own psychiatrist) sometimes seem to be competing to see who can speak with more soft and slow portentousness.

To paraphrase one of Dr. Lecter’s more famous lines, television is a more interesting place with Hannibal in it, and one can’t help but admire the artistry of its stylization.  The show, however, needs to have some amount of dramatic grounding in a recognizable universe–as Harris’s best novels and their films have had–if it’s going to be more than an aesthetic exercise in bloodlust.  Perhaps this season is planning to get to that place.

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."