From Bryan Fuller, creator of quirky cult television series Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, comes NBC's Hannibal, the story of the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, one of the big screen's most well-known serial killers. Technically a quasi-prequel to big-screen thrillers Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, Hannibal is this season's second such series based on a popular horror franchise, following the premiere of A&E's Psycho-inspired Bates Motel last month. How does it stack up?
The biggest positive in the first episode is Hugh Dancy's tortured portrayal of FBI Special Investigator Will Graham, the true protagonist of the series despite its title. Represented on film by Edward Norton and William Petersen in 2002's Red Dragon and 1986's Manhunter respectively, the character previously came across flat in comparison with the twisted minds he was investigating, but Dancy brings a traumatized intensity to the role that makes Graham a compelling figure to follow from week to week. He is perched on the edge of madness himself, cursed and blessed with total empathy, which gives him the ability to literally put himself in the mind of the killer to recreate the murders he is investigating. Understandably, reliving these horrific crimes has damaged Graham's psyche and leaves him shaken to the core, a seemingly permanent condition perfectly captured by the British actor in his first starring role on an American TV series. Reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation while serving as a professor at the FBI Academy, Graham is heroic yet deeply disturbed, doing what he does not because he wants to, but because he's the only one who can.
The other two main performances are top-notch as well, featuring Laurence Fishburne as Graham's boss, Special Agent Jack Crawford, and Mads Mikkelsen as the iconic Dr. Lecter. Fishburne brings a level of gravitas to the show and turns in a dependably gruff portrayal, especially in a delightful scene where he is trying to have a private conversation with Graham in a public bathroom and yells at one of his agents to use the ladies' room instead when he walks in to use the facilities. While so far Crawford isn't much different from the type of character usually seen on procedural dramas, Fishburne brings him to life in a memorable fashion and feels credible in the role.
Stepping into the enormous shoes of Anthony Hopkins, Mads Mikkelsen is faced with the stiffest challenge of any of the cast members in the titular role as Dr. Lecter, a noted psychiatrist who is enlisted by Agent Crawford for his expertise on a particularly enigmatic case. As viewers, we know that Lecter is secretly a villain who kills and eats his victims, and the show cleverly plays with that concept by cutting from the FBI agents talking about the killer removing his victim's lungs to a shot of Lecter elegantly preparing meat that suspiciously resembles a pair of lungs. Knowing the good doctor's true nature and the eventual fate of his relationship with Graham automatically adds tension to their scenes together, notably an early morning visit from Lecter, who serves Graham a breakfast that he cooked himself.
Although Mikkelsen's thick European accent interferes with the dialogue at times, it suits the character created by Thomas Harris and helps the Danish actor to step out of the shadow of Hopkins, who brought the cerebral cannibal to life in three feature films with a distinctly British accent. His stylish suits and generally amiable manner make him alarmingly charming; if one viewed the series debut without any prior knowledge of the Lecter character, it might be easy to think that he's one of the good guys. However, by the time Lecter places a secret phone call warning the killer that the FBI is coming for him, it's obvious he is much darker and more dangerous than Crawford or Graham realize.
As was the case with his failed Munsters reboot Mockingbird Lane as well as his previous projects, Bryan Fuller brings a unique vision to Hannibal featuring fully realized characters and lush visuals. The blood and gore is quite substantial for a broadcast network, and the technique used to illustrate Graham's uncanny abilities is slick and well-executed, wiping away various aspects of the crime scene before literally casting himself as the murderer and reliving the moment. Costume and set design are also notable, with the most impressive set being the aforementioned public bathroom, clearly inspired by The Shining. Not only is the overpowering red symbolic of the bloodshed yet to come, it radiates on television and enhances the confrontational scene between Crawford and Graham.
While I rated Bates Motel higher than most critics, then lost interest and missed the subsequent episodes, I can say I quite enjoyed Hannibal and will continue to tune in for its entire 13-episode run based on the strength of the performances and the production values. The pace was intentionally slow in the debut episode, but it picked up steam with the introduction of Dr. Lecter half-way through and Fuller has promised that the story will accelerate quicker than most series due to the limited number of episodes. So far, he seems to be respecting and utilizing the source material while tweaking it to fit his vision and challenge audience expectations. I'll be back for seconds next week.
FINAL GRADE: B+