Judge Clark Douglas thinks this show is delicious. (Sorry.)
Feed your fear.
"A warning: nothing in this meal is vegetarian."
Facts of the Case
Special Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, Ella Enchanted) is one of the world's most gifted and unconventional criminal profilers. Due to his exceptional capacity for empathy, he's able to put himself inside the mind of a criminal in order to determine how and why they committed a murder. Will works under the supervision of Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne, The Matrix), who heads up the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit. Jack admires Will's gifts, but has reservations about Will's mental stability. As such, he insists that Will submit himself to analysis from Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino), a respected psychiatrist who happens to be hiding a few very dark secrets. Over the course of Hannibal's first season, Will solves a variety of gruesome cases and begins to form an unusual bond with his therapist.
Hannibal seemed doomed to fail from the beginning. It was airing on NBC, a network that hasn't exactly had a terribly successful track record in recent years. It was based on a franchise that people had seemingly grown weary of (as evidenced by the chilly critical and commercial reaction to the dreadful prequel Hannibal Rising). The central character was a figure who had been expertly depicted in an Oscar-winning turn by Sir Anthony Hopkins, so any attempt to recreate that magic was bound to pale in comparison. Plus, the show was created by Bryan Fuller, who has a long history of delivering interesting shows that don't last very long (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Mockingbird Lane). Despite all of this, Hannibal proved to be both the best new network show of the 2012-2013 season and managed to secure a second-season renewal (the ratings were low, but an international financing deal made it cheaper to produce than most other comparably budgeted television shows).
Early on, it seems as if Hannibal might just be another crime procedural, as Will investigates a variety of bizarre cases and then discusses his feelings with the title character. However, it doesn't take long to realize that Fuller is up to something much larger and more ambitious than those early installments suggest. Nearly every element of the show is a crucial part of the overall puzzle. After Will investigates one collection of dead bodies after another, the show spends a good deal of time detailing the unhealthy psychological effect this is having on him. This isn't just another procedural where the central character can look at dead bodies every week, make jokes, shoot a bad guy and then move on to the next installment. In Hannibal, every decision has a consequence, even if it's not obvious right off the bat.
In the opening episode, Will hunts down and kills a serial killer who's been murdering teenage girls and eating them. The next week, he's working on another case, but that first case isn't through with him yet. He's still coping with the fact that he's killed a person, feeling responsibility for orphaning the killer's daughter and experiencing strange reoccurring visions related to the case. What seemed like a relatively simple, self-contained case has long-term repercussions that play out over the course of the entire season. Unlike most shows in the genre, Hannibal actually takes the time to consider what seeing such ugly stuff on a regular basis would do to a person. This is a show that presents many of its characters with unspeakable horrors on a regular basis. The fact that it almost always takes the time to examine how difficult it must be to process these horrors can make it feel like one of the bleakest shows on television, but it's a very rewarding one.
While the emotional elements of the show are painfully realistic (a powerful scene between Fishburne and guest star Gina Torres at the conclusion of the fifth episode is almost Bergmanesque in its unforgiving bluntness), the actual carnage is much more stylized. People aren't simply murdered in this show, they're turned into mushroom gardens or bloody angels or grotesque musical instruments or human totem poles. It's in this area that Fuller's trademark whimsy shines through, and he seems to take a certain perverse delight in concocting increasingly florid spectacles of death. The push-and-pull between the gut-wrenching believability of the characterization and the giddily imaginative crime scenes is tremendously effective. Feverishly melodramatic plotting, achingly real emotions—this isn't a crime procedural, it's an opera (a notion the season makes increasingly clear as it begins to rely less on the CSI-style thump-n-bump music that dominates the early episodes and starts underscoring major events with full-blooded classical selections).
Hannibal does a lot of things very well—it offers engaging storytelling, strong production values, exceptional performances across the board, thematic depth, slow-burn thrills and a whole lot more—but its greatest virtue is its treatment of the title character. As essayed by Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal the Cannibal isn't the campy, colorful figure of the Hopkins films but rather a icy, serpentine figure who prefers to hold his cards close to the vest. Mikkelsen's quiet magnetism is such a striking reworking of the character that we almost immediately forget that Lecter was ever played by anyone else. Fuller and co. are taking their time revealing the full depth of the character's wickedness and intelligence—we're halfway through the season before we actually see Lecter murder anyone—and Mikkelson's slow-burn performance consistently keeps us fascinated and wanting to know more. On the big screen, Lecter has been the live wire who keeps throwing a wrench into everything. In Fuller's take on the tale, he's the unflappable, steely, unmoving force at the center of an incredibly chaotic world. While everyone else is desperately struggling for answers and frantically attempting to gain some sort of advantage, Lecter sits back, sips his expensive wine and watches his complex plans unfold. In more ways than one, this is his show.
That being said, Dancy deserves a tremendous amount of credit for making Will such a fascinating protagonist. It's indicated early on that Will has Asperger's, which is a large part of why he's so focused on his work and so uncomfortable with social pleasantries. Dancy's raw-nerve performance is endlessly engaging, as he finds a way to convey all of the character's insecurities and fears. Fishburne initially seems to be playing just another booming authority figure, but his character (and performance) grows more complex as the season progresses. In the back half of the season, Gillian Anderson begins a recurring role as Lecter's psychiatrist (in a role reminiscent of Peter Bogdonavich's work on The Sopranos). The scenes between Anderson and Mikkelsen are tremendous displays of acting, with each party subtly trying to work their way past the other's defenses.
Hannibal: Season One (Blu-ray) has received a very strong 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that effectively accentuates the show's distinctive visual style. Three of the thirteen episodes included in this collection (including the premiere and finale) were directed by David Slade, whose stylish, desaturated visuals inform the look of the entire season. Detail is terrific throughout, depth is strong and darker scenes (there are more than a few) benefit from exceptional shading. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also simply terrific, though there are moments when the music feels nearly oppressive (which I'm sure was the intent). Dialogue is crisp and clean throughout. Supplements include two audio commentaries with Fuller, Slade and Dancy (on the first and last episodes of the season), a handful of fairly engaging featurettes ("Hannibal Reborn," "A Taste for Killing," "A Symphony for the Slaughter" and "The FX of Murder"), a gag reel, a deleted scene and some storyboards created for the pilot episode. Hardly comprehensive, but a decent package.
Fuller has indicated that he's developed a seven-season outline for Hannibal, and envisions creating the ultimate Lecter epic that would eventually take us through the events of Red Dragon and beyond. He's definitely off to a strong start, and though conventional wisdom suggest the low-rated show isn't likely to last that long, I sincerely hope it does. Fuller and his team have done justice to one of pop culture's most fascinating villains, and I can't wait to see what happens next on this wonderful, horrible journey. Highly recommended.
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