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