If NBC’s Hannibal were a Broadway musical, it’d be the kind that leaves you humming the scenery. The sorta origin story about effete serial killer Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham is loosely based on Thomas Harris’s fiction. Like the Psycho prequel Bates Motel, however, it’s set in a present-day world of DNA testing, cell phones, and blogs. And it takes its stylistic cues not from Silence of the Lambs, or even its forerunner, Manhunter, but from Se7en and The Cell, serial-killer pictures whose pleasures (if I can use that word!) were mainly visual.
Hannibal is the most beautiful series on network TV, alarmingly so. The people who made this series (including creator Bryan Fuller of Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Wonderfalls) are fascinated by dream and nightmare imagery and visualize it with more panache than you typically see on a broadcast network drama. The dismembered, impaled, and bullet-riddled bodies are splayed out with sculptural precision. Bloodstains well out like halos or wings. When Graham imagines his way into a serial killer’s mind and reenacts his atrocities, the show enters a fugue state, slipping in and out of the present via transitions that suggest a windshield wiper blade or conductor’s baton dancing across Graham’s field of vision.
Throughout the series there are impressionistic close-ups that could be freeze-framed, blown up, and exhibited in an abstract art show: cream clouds in a coffee cup, roiling and spreading like nebulae in a visionary sci-fi film; time-lapse footage of fungi growing. The violence is so primordial that it goes beyond misanthropy or misogyny and into Freudian/Jungian spelunking, and it’s all of a piece with the show’s meticulously developed sense of color, texture, and motion. Even workhorse expository shots are composed with care. As the second episode ended, I found myself admiring the arrangement of cops at a crime scene, with one placed in the extreme foreground, frame right. Aesthetically, Hannibal is the opposite of Fox’s smash hit serial-killer drama The Following, which treats the camera mainly as a recording device, dutifully tailing its heroes and maniacs, watching them fret, plot, and kill.
You’ll notice I’ve gone three paragraphs without mentioning the main characters or the stars that play them. That’s because, even though the performers are terrific, these scenarios have been revisited and reimagined so many times that I don’t think it really matters who plays Graham or Lecter or FBI officer Jack Crawford (Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, and Laurence Fishburne, if you care). The serial-killer genre might be the second most tediously limited popular genre, after the superhero picture. Devise a killer who fancies himself an artist, a god, a cult leader, whatever; pit him against law-enforcement agents on the brink of madness; play cat-and-mouse for a couple of hours; end with a showdown: This is the drill, and Hannibal knows it backwards and forwards.
It’s admittedly fun, up to a point, to see what Hannibal does with these too-familiar elements. I like how the show has made Will Graham into a much more bookish sort than we’ve seen in previous Lecter stories — less an intellectual cop than a raggedy-assed associate professor who happens to be armed. The show also foregrounds the notion that he’s essentially a troubled artist working for a bureaucracy that has little tolerance for artists. The lone exception is Crawford, who protects, respects, and indulges Graham as a talent manager would a rock star; there are even scenes in which Crawford chastises other FBI employees for breaking Graham’s concentration when he’s in a zone. The sequences in which Graham imagines himself as a murderer yield the show’s most revoltingly brutal, eerily beautiful moments. An early bit of dialogue establishes Graham as a man coping with an unspecified spectrum disorder, something in an Asperger's/autism vein. He also seems to be a lucid dreamer who can enter an REM state even while awake.
When Lecter enters the story, consulting on a string of baffling abduction/murders and psychoanalyzing Graham, Hannibal briefly becomes a blackly comedic tale of artists competing for the attention of a patron (the FBI). Lecter is as brilliant and eccentric as Graham but far more endearing, at least as long as you don’t see him sautéing lungs in a frying pan. Graham is threatened by, and jealous of, Lecter’s charisma, and by the attention that Crawford pays him — and it seems that the reverse is also true, though Lecter is so suave that he rarely expresses his anxiety as bluntly as Graham. (Dancy and Mikkelsen are terrific individually and even better together; his buzzy faux-American energy and his laid-back Euro-cool complement each other.)
The first few episodes make it seem as though Hannibal is going to split the difference between a procedural and a serial drama, alternating one-off stories of Graham, Lecter, and Crawford solving individual cases while developing a dense and mysterious master narrative — a “mythology.” Lecter seems to have more than a sporting interest in the suspects he’s helping the FBI apprehend. Will Hannibal eventually turn into a better-directed, better-written photocopy of The Following? Or will it become a twisted buddy comedy, with Graham and Lecter solving crimes and needling each other? Either way, it’s hard to imagine Hannibal scaling new peaks of originality as drama — not with characters and situations that have, in more than one sense, been done to death.
At least there’s life in the acting and in the show’s inventive visuals. I can imagine visual artists throwing weekly Hannibal parties, watching the show with the sound off while blasting ambient music through iPod speakers and feasting on liver, fava beans, and Chianti.