“I can’t get you out of my head.” That’s what FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) tells people-eating psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) in the season-two premiere of Hannibal. If TV shows could exist like people, I would say the same thing to this NBC series while backing away slowly: I can’t get you out of my head. At which point the series might reply, in Mikkelsen’s honeyed aperitif of a voice, “Why don’t we sit down and have dinner and discuss it? I made you something special.”
Drawn from the fiction of Thomas Harris, this brooding drama from Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) seemed a bad idea on paper—especially if, like me, you found the Howard Roark–like Hannibal the Cannibal more tiresome with each book and movie sequel and the Diabolical Serial Killer genre intellectually and aesthetically bankrupt, with a few exceptions. But in practice, this program is serenely unlike anything else on TV or anything that ever has been on TV. Although it’s intricately plotted and packed with strong actors playing psychologically complex human beings—including Caroline Dhavernas as psychiatry professor Alana Bloom, who adores and wants to save Will, and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, the FBI’s agent-in-charge of the Behavioral Science Unit—it goes against the grain of so much so-called quality TV, in that it is not interested in being a mere script-delivery device.
The story is compelling, and it cut off near the end of season one with a cliffhanger that was genuinely startling, not just for the speed with which it showed Will realizing that Hannibal was a devious killer (a twist most series would’ve saved for season two or three) but for the way it messed with our collective image of Lecter as the killer from The Silence of the Lambs, an incarcerated fiend dispensing bons mots to visiting FBI agents. In season one, Hannibal frames Will for murders that Hannibal himself committed or abetted, to the point of literally planting an incriminating ear inside Will’s alimentary canal; at the start of season two, Hannibal takes Will’s place as FBI profiler and occasionally visits him behind bars to ask for his “help” with ongoing cases, inquire about his well-being, and otherwise glean information that can permit him to sustain his deception.
Intriguing as these variations are, though, they’re not the source of Hannibal’s specialness; in fact, Fox’s much dumber and clumsier serial-killer drama The Following pulls off similarly “shocking” twists each and every week, in its determination to be Se7en meets 24, or some such thing. It’s a classic example of script-delivery TV, signaling every scare with a shrieking music cue, covering action and dialogue with multiple shaky cameras, and otherwise behaving as if horror’s only purpose is to set up sledgehammer-obvious scares. Hannibal, in contrast, approaches similar subject matter in a thoughtful way. It does not restrict itself to The Following’s tedious binary of “Something horrible is about to happen” and “Oh my God, that was horrible!” You could say it’s as close as a broadcast network has gotten to the personal artistry of the best premium-cable shows, if it weren’t bolder and more elegant than anything on pay cable right now, including HBO’s own serial-killer drama, True Detective.
The show’s greatest asset is its mastery of tone, a quality most shows don’t have the time or inclination to get right. Hannibal’s formal daring is never empty showmanship; it’s always in service of making the whole series feel like an endless lucid nightmare. Its events feel emotionally “real”—the upcoming revelation of exactly how Hannibal got that severed ear inside of Will does for medical tubing what Psycho did for butcher knives—but in terms of “this happened and then that happened,” you can’t take any of it literally, any more than you could take Blue Velvet or Dead Ringers literally. Its decision to live entirely inside dream-space lets it depict plot developments of laughable absurdity, and violence of intense savagery, without opening itself to charges that it’s too unbelievable or violent. The characters morph into ancient archetypes: the angel, the demon, the shape-shifting trickster. Every room is darker than a real-world room would be. The blinds or shades are drawn, the better to encourage Hannibal, his patients, and his own psychiatrist (X-Files star Gillian Anderson, who else?) to speak in conspiratorial whispers, their faces etched by chiaroscuro. Hannibal appears to Will in the form of both a magnificent stag and a hideous half-man-half-demon with antlers. The show’s most exciting sequences are not its murders, chases, or fights (these are more often depicted as horrifying or sad) but those uneasy instances in which things seem mysteriously yet palpably off, even by Hannibal’s standards. Brian Reitzell’s score starts to burble and moan like Hell’s orchestra tuning up, and you lean forward in your seat, knowing you’re going to see an eruption of art for art’s sake: a God’s-eye-view shot of corpses laid out like shrimp on a wedding platter; Fishburne and Mikkelsen’s faces reflected in Hannibal’s carving knife; Dr. Bloom guiding Will in a memory-recovery experiment, her face becoming dark and demonic yet still somehow lovely.
In the end, this show is not about cops and killers or even reality and dreams. It’s about how art affects the mind and body. It explicitly likens its subsidiary serial killers to striving artists struggling to perfect their style and be noticed by the public and appreciated by critics (the FBI). The killers work in mixed media: wood, steel, soil, plants, flesh, bones, teeth. When Will describes an especially elaborate murder scene as “a canvas made of bodies,” in which “each body is a brushstroke,” he’s describing Hannibal itself.