April 5, 2013



HANNIBAL:  Thursday 10PM on NBC – Potential DVR Alert

Bryan Fuller has a very unusual sensibility, especially for network TV.  He’s attracted both to gruesome crime stories and elaborate visual tableaux, as he showed in his Wonderfalls and particularly Pushing Daisies, with its mix of candy-coated production design and bizarre murder mysteries–it was like Willy Wonka’s version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  (Fuller was also behind the busted attempt to bring back The Munsters last season.)  If he were a bit more esoteric in his tastes, he might have become the North American Peter Greenaway, but instead he’s back with HANNIBAL, which like A&E’s Bates Motel is a prequel to a story we know very well, in this case the saga of FBI Agent Will Graham and the elegantly cannibalistic mass-murderer Hannibal Lecter told in Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon and both the movie of that name and Michael Mann’s version entitled Manhunter.  (For anyone unacquainted with the chronology, all these tales precede Silence of the Lambs.)

By the time Red Dragon begins, Lecter has done his best to murder Graham and has been put into jail (only to escape, of course, in Lambs), but in the TV series, Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, best known as the villain with the bleeding eye in Casino Royale) is still a prosperous Baltimore psychiatrist who consults with Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his FBI superior Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) on fiendish cases.  Graham, for his part, has had his own psychological condition ramped up from Harris’s version–rather than merely a brilliantly deductive investigator and troubled family man as in the novel and previous films, this Graham lives alone (but for the stray dogs he rescues) and has borderline Aspergers, the TV writer’s newest toy.  When he reconstructs the killings he’s trying to solve, he actually takes the role of the killer himself, and so we watch our hero brutally murder people at length, geysers of blood spattering and unspattering as the crime occurs and reoccurs in his mind.  (Apparently network TV is incapable of duplicating the intelligence or ambition of cable drama, so instead it’s just going to feature ever gorier violence.)  Graham also has dreams in which he imagines the victims as their killers present them, including one in the pilot mounted very precisely on deer antlers.  This is where Fuller, as writer of the pilot, and director David Slade (his movie work includes the vampire duo of 30 Days of Night and Twilght: Eclipse) seem to have put all their passion for the project.

Hannibal is very dark stuff, much more so than Dexter (where our hero killer is fairly scrupulous about keeping the innocent safe and wiping out those who do otherwise) or even The Following (which has a Lecter-clone villain, but also his sympathetic wife and son as protagonists, and a hero who may be alcoholic and on the edge, but who at least doesn’t identify with the murderers he hunts down).  In the pilot alone, apart from Graham’s imagined crimes, Lecter engineers one killing (and almost another), and it’s clearly implied that he slaughtered someone else just to give a hint to Graham about the central murders.

The show is handsomely and sometimes cleverly put together–a confrontation between Graham and Crawford takes place in a red bathroom that’s presumably a nod to The Shining, and Lecter makes his first appearance in the pilot immediately after a mention of a victim’s liver–but, at least in its pilot, not very suspenseful or dramatically compelling.  Mostly the characters talk at each other in between bloody set-pieces, until Graham has a breakthrough (in the pilot, an extremely coincidental one) and solves the case.  Mikkelsen is a much less charismatic Lecter than Anthony Hopkins or Brian Cox in Manhunter, overbearing and smug instead of scarily likable, and lacking in wit.   Dancy, for his part, is so jumpy and miserable he makes Kevin Bacon’s character in The Following seem light-hearted.  Fishburne, however, is far better used here than he was on CSI, and so far we’ve seen little of Catherine Dhavernas (from Wonderfalls), who seems intended as a romantic interest for Graham.

Hannibal is sort of fascinating, visually if not otherwise, and it’s certainly more interesting than any of the other dramas NBC launched this season.  Whether it’s going to develop dramatic weight, however, or become little more than a well-photographed freak show, is unclear.  Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs were thrillers in the true sense of the word–they were armrest-grippingly thrilling to watch–and that isn’t true of their spin-off, at least not yet.

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."