Hannibal Series Premiere Review: The Mind Can Be A Terrible Thing to Taste

By Tim Surette

Apr 05, 2013

Hannibal S01E01: "Apertif"

In a more sensible world, NBC's new drama Hannibal would be called Graham, after the real main attraction of the show. But television, particularly television that's created by NBC, is a business first, a business second, and a business third (and at NBC it's a bad business, if 2013 has been any indication), so marketing trumps sensibility when dollars are involved. And who would watch a show called Graham anyway? Hannibal does have a marketable heavyweight behind it in the legend of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a character made somewhat well-known by Thomas Harris's novels and outright infamous by the film The Silence of the Lambs. But so far Hannibal, which debuted tonight in NBC's Thursday 10pm death slot, is really all about that other guy, FBI agent Will Graham. 

It's Graham, played sharply by British actor Hugh Dancy, who lifts Hannibal above the crop of other serial-killer-based series that've sprouted in this early midseason (Fox's lame The Following and A&E's sorta-okay Bates Motel also center on killers or would-be killers). The opening of the pilot is a stunner; Graham, on the scene of a grisly double homicide, virtually inhabits the mind of the killer and works his way through the murders as if he'd held the gun, pulled the trigger, and delighted in the expired life that resulted. Dancy goes off to a distant place, has an out-of-body experience in his head, and reluctantly frolics in the playground of his imagination. See, Graham has one of those few traits that television often starves its characters of: empathy. In fact, he's got so much empathy, you can't even begin to imagine what he feels like (but he could). He can tell what killers are thinking just from the way a body is left hanging from a set of antlers (gross) or how an organ was replaced within a body or whatever other sick things his job brings up. It's detective work, but it's just different enough from what we're used to seeing to make the format feel new.

Those who chase serial killers and criminals on television today are typically powered by some heightened form of deduction, turning them into a kind of super detective. They flaunt their ability in front of others, because let's face it, it'd be a pretty cool bar trick to piece together someone's backstory from the contents of their purse, as Elementary's Sherlock can. But Graham's prize for high levels of empathy is crawling through the filthy muck of of serial killers' minds, and his emotionally taxing routine of replaying their gruesome acts has him straddling victims and choking the life out of them or putting slugs into their brains. It's not exactly like Patrick Jane's Mentalist squint or Carrie Wells' Unforgettable memory trance. This is life-shortening experience transference, the kind of work strain that follows you home and chips away at your soul. And unlike his profiler counterparts on other shows, Graham isn't able to use his ability in the real world because of neurosis and crippling social anxiety, "somewhere between Asberger's and autistics," and it's a consistant and terrible reminder that maybe he understands serial killers better than he understands normal people. It's like having the voice of one of the Four Tenors, but only being able to use it in the shower.

This makes Will Graham a far more compelling centerpiece than, say, The Following's Ryan Hardy (zzzzzz...), whose setbacks (alcoholism, a pacemaker) are wearily mundane by comparison. Graham is a character with persistent flaws, Hardy is merely a persistently flawed character. Graham has to constantly live with his problems, whereas the writers of The Following can turn Hardy's on and off as they please and as it fits the story. Plus, does Hardy pick up stray dogs and give them baths!? I don't think so.

However, most viewers will come to Hannibal for the Hannibal, and this incarnation of the grisly gastronomist is a much more subdued dude. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, known by most Americans as the bad guy from the Bond flick Casino Royale, lets most of Lecter's pre-established reputation do the work in the pilot episode, as Mikkelsen stands mostly quiet and reserved—a brilliant decision. We all know who Hannibal Lecter is, and it would've been a huge mistake for the series to oversell the character or reimagine him for today's audience. The monster beneath is hiding in plain sight, and our knowledge of his culinary preferences is all we need to be fearful him. And in case we need a little kick in the ass, interstitial bits of a prim-and-proper Lecter noshing on some liver medallions or lung fritters are there to remind us. Mikkelsen is also allowed to keep his Dutch accent, and even though it makes for a few indecipherable phrases, the thick consonants class up Lecter's intellect and make him seem more professorial, which is key to his charisma. 

What will make the series worth watching is the odd relationship between Lecter and Graham, two geniuses in their own right who are engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse in which we're not sure who's doing the meowing and who's nibbling on the cheese. Lecter likes to prod and test Graham's ability and patience, as he does when they first meet and when Lecter puts out his own copycat murder. Though Graham's a champion mind-invader himself, he gets grumpy when others try to psychoanalyze him, and Lecter picks up on that quickly and exploits it. But I suspect that, as the series moves forward, the two will have to work together to catch other bad guys, and their success will be all over the map given Lecter's propensity for unpredictability. In tonight's episode, Lecter gave the killer a heads up for reasons unknown, though I'm guessing it was just to make Graham's life as difficult as possible.

Lecter is the wildest of wild cards and a sociopath whose inconsistency is the perfect foil for Graham's high levels of empathy. It's the unstoppable force and the immovable object catching bad guys! Try as he might, Graham will probably never be able to understand Lecter, and Lecter is so fascinated by Graham that Graham will become Lecter's favorite plaything. It's a set-up that sounds great now and should pay off big early on, but there are questions of how long the two can bicker before their disagreements become tiresome. There's going to have to be some serious relationship development along the way as the two get to know each other better, and I think that's exactly what will happen. The bigger obstacle will be dealing with the idea of a serial killer working in secret with the FBI's greatest criminal profiler and not getting caught. But hey, a chump like Dexter Morgan did it for six seasons, so Lecter should have at least a season and a half in him.

It's a good sign for the show that the first things I wrote about in this review were the characters, but Hannibal's tone and feel are just as important to its overall canvas of creepiness. Creator Bryan Fuller (Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies) dips his brushes into that wonderfully perverse brain of his and paints effectively, with dark tones and splashes of red to set the mood to uncomfortable and squeamish. But the violence here isn't egregious like the gore-porn of The Following (sorry to compare the two again, okay fine I'll try to stop). Instead, and I don't want to start anything up with the air-tight asses of the Parents Television Council here, it's kind of... beautiful. Pools of blood retract in reverse motion, arteries spray red at quarter speed, and corpses are placed in elegant poses like murdered fashion-model mannequins. It's violent imagery that draws the eyes in instead of poking them with needles. Shout-out to director David Slade (who also directed the pilot for last year's late-season NBC Thursday 10pm slot show, Awake) for making it flourish. 

The problems that did arise in the pilot had to do with the case of the week. But if there are going to be problems, it's best to have them with the weekly procedural format, especially in the pilot. We don't care about the case so much in the introductory hour; however, as long as we're talking about it, it wrapped up rather quickly, didn't it? Once Lecter and Graham easily identified the suspect, they hurried to his house and shot him. Bang bang bang! Case closed! And you have to wonder why Graham, a mentally unstable agent who should be under close supervision, and Lecter, a mere psychological consultant, are out in the field alone together chasing bad guys in the first place. Shouldn't they have training wheels for a bit? Would you let a guy who acts and dresses like Hannibal Lecter run free with a wackjob agent like Graham? Is this the FBI or Police Academy

Midseason shows are usually midseason shows because expectations are low. But Hannibal took advantage of low expectations and became one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Due to its subject matter and one bitch of a cursed time slot, it might not be an outright hit, but it has a chance to become NBC's best show of the season and one of the better new entries in all of television if it can maintain a majority of the pilot's great start. 


– I didn't even mention Laurence Fishburne, who plays third fiddle to Dancy and Mikkelsen.

– Who takes care of Graham's dogs when he's out on business? And didn't that dog he picked up have a leash? Is Graham just stealing other people's dogs? I must know more about these dogs!

– Lecter had Graham eat human flesh LOL great workplace prank, gotta try that on my boss sometime. [Ed. Note: Dear Tim, we're never sharing a meal together ever again, xoxo, Jen]

– A couple WEIRD casting choices that I dig: Dan Fogel (of the late Man Up) as Lecter's weeping patient, and Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall) as a very serious agent who knows a bit about birds. 

– A welcome return to American television for Caroline Dhavernas (Wonderfalls), whose plays Alana Bloom. I'm not sure how her character fits in, but any Caroline is better than no Caroline! Unless it's via her previous outing, ABC's dreadful Off the Map.

Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom

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  • syb72101 May 28, 2013

    Hannibal is better than the Following by a mile. Actually, several miles.

  • hagarrett1 May 26, 2013

    Hobbs kills his wife and attempts to kill his daughter as a desperate act of love/mercy. To save them from what is to come, after his capture or death. Then too his daughter was his crime partner, her future was over. His tendency to kill other girls in order not to kill her is a whacked kind of reflected love/mercy. When the jig was up and he knew it, this love mercy became direct. Because he loved and cared for them that much. This whacked love/mercy thing is hinted at early on by revelation of his obsessive reverence for all parts of the thing killed. All the writing and production elements of good sequentialized dark moments. At least that's what I thought as I watched it. They occur regularly throughout this series an are expertly presented.

  • tazzzje Apr 20, 2013

    Mads Mikkelsen has a Danish accent, Famke Janssen might have a Dutch accent.

  • NeeUyank Apr 15, 2013

    the second episode was as epic as the first one and creepier definitely.. this show requires weekly reviewing, it is superb!

  • JamieMartinez2 Apr 14, 2013

    Since the audience is lead to believe there is something wrong with Graham, and from the buzz the pilot episode was getting about being utterly disturbing, I actually fast forwarded through the scene of Graham trying to get the dog in his car because I thought he would act out the actions of the serial killers acts racing through his mind on stray dogs (probably from watching the pilot of The Following)... hence my utter relief and ear to ear grin when it turned out he was saving the dogs, not cutting them up.

  • Kobe1989 Apr 12, 2013

    'Keep his Dutch accent'...? Danish people have Danish accents!!

  • Finn75 Apr 11, 2013

    There's no good way to say this, so I'm just gonna blurt it out:
    Several of the missing girls´s names match the names of actresses in the adult industry.

  • cute2thebeut Apr 10, 2013

    Can really tell your a fan of The Following...

  • Watashii Apr 09, 2013

    I didn't watch Awake but I did watch this show. I'm afraid that its going to be like Awake and gets cancelled. I'm glad that NBC is still taking risks on artsy non-traditional procedural. If ever the show gets canned, I hope one of the NBC cable channel picks it up. Bravo is NBC right? It'll fit right in.

    I honestly didn't like the Will Graham character. Anti-social genius savants are just so uninteresting to me. I would have preferred a Clarice Starling type lead. Maybe that way, more people would have watched the show since the Hannibal franchise is known for both Hannibal and Clarice.

    I'm not a fan of artsy type shows but this is better than The Following and Bates Motel. I like the show but with the relatively low ratings and the artsy production, I'm pessimistic that it will survive. Hope cable picks it up.

  • BiniBeans Apr 09, 2013

    Yes, they shouldn't have wrapped up the series killer of the week this easily and by the civilians on their own. But apart from that it was a brilliantly written, made and acted episode.
    And just because this show has no resemblance to real life doesn't mean it shouldn't be enjoyed all the same.

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