Police procedurals are a dime a dozen. You can’t take a piss without splashing back on one. So you have to choose your poison carefully. You can focus on generic characters and situations, but present it with enough swagger and flash that the rubes are fooled into paying attention; or you can focus on a main character with enough personality and style that we watch for them rather than the bland clockwork mysteries they solve week in and out.
And when you have a 22 episode season, there’s going to be a lot of repetition, a lot of bad acting, a lot of clichés, a lot of filler, and if you’re lucky, a lot of engagement with the main characters. That’s what makes shows like Columbo, Rockford Files, or The Mentalist superior to something like CSI and its clones in my book. The main characters are appealing and the mysteries are like cotton candy while we enjoy some quality time with the cast, instead of the violence and murder taking center stage while our puppets are led around cashing their paychecks and prepping for retirement.
The inherent structure and nature of the network television police procedural is really only designed for one or the other approach – and both are ultimately shallow and unsatisfying. The cable networks have figured out a way to freshen the approach. Shows like Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified are able to focus on morally conflicted characters and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in mainstream crime drama. Plus, their shorter seasons allow for more attention to be paid creatively to structuring cohesive storylines in ways that the traditional networks can’t do.
Hannibal is NBC’s attempt to do just what they’ve never been able to do before.
Bryan Fuller has pitched a seven-season arc of 13-episode seasons charting the development of the relationship between cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham. Fuller, as I’m sure you know, has a very distinct approach to television storytelling (Dead like Me, Pushing Daisies) and has always kept one foot in the macabre and the bizarre. Hannibal marks his first serious foray into extremely dark narratives and he has huge plans (telling Hannibal’s tale all the way through the Silence of the Lambs era – although rights issues may sidetrack some of those concepts) and the creative team in place to really pull them off.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelson stars as Hannibal, playing the iconic character with a freshness and enthusiasm that marks his take as very different from both the Brian Cox and the Anthony Hopkins versions of the character. Both of the previous incarnations were Hannibal after-the-fact, when he no longer had to hide who and what he was. Mikkelson is given the opportunity to play Lecter as a human being more than as a monster. At least in the beginning (Fuller says Season 4 will adapt Red Dragon, so Mikkelson should be allowed plenty of play in how he approaches the character).
Mikkelson is an actor who elevates anything he is involved with. His Le Chiffre in Casino Royalewas a brilliant reinvention of the Bond villain for a new generation, and in Valhalla Rising he played the amazing character, One Eye, who helped make that film the perfect Viking Art Film. He was even okay as Rochefort in the fiasco that was The Three Musketeers. His accent is a little difficult to get through in Hannibal at first, and that might be off-putting to some viewers, but he plays Hannibal with such confidence and grace that even if you can’t tell what he’s saying at times, you still feel a little creeped out by the seductive rhythms of his speech.
The other lead, Will Graham is played by Hugh Dancy. I know nothing about Dancy other than that he’s married to Claire Danes. Having not seen him in anything else, it was his take on Graham that I was the most worried about going in. This is a very different approach to the character than those taken by William Petersen in Manhunter and Edward Norton in Red Dragon, where the characters were already experienced and much more confident. They still played the hesitancy at the heart of the character, but Dancy, under the guiding hand of Fuller, is really allowed to run with the imaginative, empathic anxieties that set this production apart from other procedurals.
Laurence Fishburne plays the head of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit, Special Agent Jack Crawford, and is clearly relishing this opportunity. Fishburne plays Crawford as a chameleon, changing tones, attitudes, and approaches depending on who he is interacting with and what his character wants from them. Again, the pre-Red Dragon setting of the piece allows for a fresh interpretation as all of these people are only now getting to know one another. If you are familiar with the novels and the films, then you know where we’re heading and it provides the viewer with a unique vantage point as we watch the story unfold.
Director David Slade brings more of the Hard Candy / 30 Days of Night approach than the Twilight Saga: Eclipse vibe, establishing right from the very beginning that this is a show that will pull no punches with what it’s willing to show the audience. Over the years there have been countless visual interpretations of the crime scene investigator’s reinterpretation of violent
murders (Willem Defoe in Boondock Saints has always been a favorite of mine) and Slade finds a way to make Graham’s empathic connections distinct and original, swiping away layers of events as Graham works backwards to the initiation of the violence. Having him startled out of his reveries also establishes just how out of touch with those around him he really is.
The plot itself is effective in setting up Graham’s psychological infirmities, as well as Lecter’s predilections toward both helping and hindering the proceedings. More than once during this first episode, Lecter is presented as likeable and, in the final few scenes, heroic. If it weren’t for his actions, the daughter of this week’s killer would have died, and that final shot of Lecter asleep, holding the girl’s hand in her hospital bed, while Graham sits uncomfortably on the other side, distanced and unable to connect emotionally, is brilliant.
I’m willing to allow for the conveniences that are required to tell the story in 43 minute chunks, especially given that we don’t get sidetracked with melodramatic asides and forced attempts to make characters relatable or humanized. Graham and Lecter are both disturbed in their own ways and Fuller’s script does very little to help the viewer establish a comfortable position to watch from as they reveal themselves to each other.
We should be uncomfortable watching them interact. We already know where this is heading, and unlike Bates Motel, the characters are strong enough to support our interest. And unlike The Following, we’re not getting a variation on a theme; this is the source. This is Hannibal Lecter. As long as the network is willing to work with Fuller to bring his individual style to the screen without whitewashing the darkness of this story, this could be one of the most effective and engaging horror stories to ever be broadcast on a major network.