A blood-drenched fantasy melodrama jam-packed with serial killers isn’t the type of show you’d normally describe as “comfort food.” But Bryan Fuller’s brilliant crime drama Hannibal has a chance to become that very thing, thanks to its reemergence on Netflix earlier this month.
With so many people still quarantining and the new content pipeline drying up, it’s a great time to sample or revisit landmark series. Hannibal deserves to be placed in that canon, and lack of exposure is the only reason it hasn’t already locked down a spot. From 2013 to 2015, the show miraculously survived three low-rated seasons on NBC, which never felt like the right venue for a hyperviolent, at times borderline experimental work that owed more to visionary horror and fantasy films than most of the tediously ordinary procedurals that tend to air on broadcast networks. One of the most frequent reactions I’d get from people who sampled it on my recommendation was, “How could a series like this end up on NBC?” The answer is that it was never really an NBC show. It was produced through France’s Gaumont network and showed up in the States because NBC paid a licensing fee that contributed to the budget.
The freewheeling, uncompromising nature of Hannibal allowed it to go places — both stylistically and in terms of characterization — that never would have been possible had it been developed in-house. Taking an expanded universe approach to Thomas Harris’s best sellers, Hannibal reorganized the chronology of existing books and films (save for The Silence of the Lambs, which the producers were unable to get rights to), and enfolded them within an art house, sexy-horror aesthetic that prized atmosphere, psychology, and stunning, unreal images over plot and plausibility. (Fuller has cited David Lynch, Mario Bava, and Tony Scott’s vampire film The Hunger as key influences.) Hannibal also reimagined familiar characters in rewarding ways — casting women and/or African-American, Asian, and Latinx actors in roles previously cast with white men — and gradually amped up a queer sensibility that was present from the moment that flesh-eating psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) joined FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in his quest to understand and ensnare a seemingly endless stream of psychos who treated murder as creative expression and corpses as material.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Sorry, I don’t like serial killer stories,” you should know that I felt pretty much the same way until Hannibal debuted. I wasn’t a fan of any prior Hannibal Lecter project, save Jonathan Demme’s 1991 blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs and Michael Mann’s 1986 cult favorite Manhunter (adapted from Harris’s Red Dragon, and remade in 2002 without distinction by Brett Ratner). The genre too often plays like a cynical bid to combine media-stoked paranoia about street crime with slasher-flick brutality, misogyny, and homophobia, liquefying every story until it becomes another cliched duel of wits between diabolical geniuses and good (if troubled) cops, while sidestepping real factors that contribute to the creation and enabling of killers.
Hannibal gets around all that by presenting its world as a dream or nightmare or fairy-tale, and positioning its title character as a mix of Tom Ripley, Dracula, and Satan from Paradise Lost: a demonic tempter, representing humanity’s darkest impulses yet in thrall to deep and unexpectedly sincere feelings of his own. Clad in immaculately tailored suits, Mikkelsen’s Lecter is a devil in disguise, tempting everyone around him by playing on insecurities, traumas, and appetites. It immediately becomes clear that Hannibal is at least partly responsible for the wave of killings that Graham, his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), and their forensic team are trying to solve. But the people-eating therapist is so adept at self-camouflage that he evades everyone’s suspicion, save for his own shrink (played, in a great bit of meta-casting, by Gillian Anderson, The X-Files’ resident mystery-solver).
Unrealistic? Well, duh. The series is no more a realistic portrait of FBI profiling than Vertigo is of private detectives. Nothing that happens on the show tries to seem “believable.” As a result, every violent act feels figurative or metaphorical, representing or mirroring the emotional and psychological violence that the characters do to each other. A river of lava or fireworks illustrate an eruption of anger; shots of snow and icicles comment on a frigid marriage or anticipate a chill in a relationship. Lit and art-directed within a millimeter of its life, the series was often edited in flash cuts that blurred “real” and dream events, and turned flesh and bone into color and texture, like the kitchen shots of Hannibal preparing tantalizing but undefined meat dishes.
There was a similar blur happening in the characterizations. Lecter and Graham’s relationship slowly morphed into a barely coded same-sex love story. But it was impossible to affix with ready-made labels, thanks to the sexually omnivorous way the scripts wrote Lecter, and the game-for-anything commitment that Dancy and Mikkelsen brought to their roles. It seems retrospectively obvious that the series would become more structurally and visually audacious with each new season and story arc: The rigid presentation of sexual orientation and desire disintegrated in time, along with season one’s self-enclosed “case of the week” structure and Will’s resistance to Lecter’s charm. As Samantha McLaren wrote in an insightful appreciation at the horror site Bloody Disgusting, “While countless shows shamelessly queerbait then ridicule their fans for reading into the subtext, Hannibal drags its subtext so far out of the closet that by the third season, it’s undeniably just text.”
By year three, Hannibal freed itself from mainstream TV’s shackles. The first half, derived from Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs sequel that’s also titled Hannibal, takes place in a dreamspace “Europe” possibly inspired by silent-era German expressionism, early Lars von Trier pictures, and Francis Coppola’s extravagantly campy 1992 version of Dracula. The back half retells Red Dragon and Manhunter by way of Patricia Highsmith, building toward a finale that amounts to a bloody three-way tryst-in-metaphor, substituting hand-to-hand combat for sex and climaxing with one of the tenderest images of male intimacy in TV history.
Beyond its playful subversions and unwavering love of beauty for beauty’s sake, Hannibal is fun — though admittedly your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for double entendres, nightmare violence (however abstract), and storytelling that grows increasingly uninterested in playing by the rules. If so inclined, you can even make a drinking game out of Hannibal busting out an overripe analogy or aphorism, then making it sound like normal speech by adding the name of the person he’s addressing.
On that note, I’ll close with a more direct question, posed by Hannibal to his unwitting soulmate: Don’t you crave change, Will?