I recently finished the second season watching NBC’s Hannibal and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s one of the best – if not the best – crime dramas on television today (along with the splendid True Detective). Even if you don’t agree with this hyperbole of mine, a few episodes will be enough to convince you that it is, at least, an extremely underrated show.
It’s been twenty years since Jonathan Demme’s wonderful Silence of the Lambs released, and even then the film didn’t catch public fancy immediately. A murderous cannibalistic psychopath and a female FBI agent seemingly did not appeal to the average movie goer. Irrespective, Anthony Hopkins’ fifteen-minute appearance as Hannibal Lecter was so terrifying and convincing, it was enough to earn the film the Academy Award Grand Slam (not that it matters). Tight scriptwriting and superbly envisioned characters gave us a memorable film. Hopkins did reprise his role as Hannibal in the eponymous sequel with decent success, albeit not to such a level. We wanted a greater insight into Hannibal’s life, which Silence of the Lambs did not provide, and although we had a glimpse in the sequel. It was a decent attempt.
However, the TV show has really hit the nail on its head with its adaptation of Red Dragon. Having not read the book, I cannot comment on the faithfulness of this adaptation, but it certainly is an enjoyable one. Although the show is titled Hannibal, it focuses primarily on Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy). Will teaches at the FBI academy and tries to solve crimes by predicting the chain of event that might have preceded the murder. Dr Hannibal Lecter is his psychiatrist, and is often responsible for most of the events in the show.
While we’re not shown how a psychopath was made, we’re given an idea of one manages to be a part of society without letting the clouds of suspicion shroud him, or tarnish his reputation. This is the show’s greatest achievement. I’m in admiration of Mads Mikkelsen’s fabulous portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, which, while being quite different from Hopkins’, is worthy of applause in its own sense. There isn’t any specific reason to his madness – much of it arises from a sense of curiosity. Hannibal toys with others’ minds simply to see what would happen. (Before you Google, Mads is that villain from Casino Royale. Before you Google that, Casino Royale was the new Bond’s first movie).
The writers have shown him to be a skilled cook with an interest in various cuisines. To emphasise his love for exquisite food even further, each episode of the first and second season is named after an element of French and Japanese cuisine, respectively. Naturally, as his profile suggests, he likes to cook with human flesh. Something so utterly disgusting portrayed with an undeniable charm, generally set to light classical music. I say charm, because it’s fascinating to watch – almost as an art from, while you know exactly how horrifying the task at hand is. Mikkelsen goes over all this with such ease and slips into his character so convincingly, it’s hard to imagine he himself isn’t a psychopath. Mads Mikkelsen plays Hannibal with such disdain, coupled with expressions of mild interest while cooking human kidneys, plating the food and relishing it while sharing it with unsuspecting guests – it’s a privilege to watch him operate.
Importantly, the writers are aware of the pacing and don’t rush the show. Initially, I was sceptical of this gradual approach, but I realised it was important to glide through plot points, tying them intricately with one another. Anything different would make the plot seem convoluted. While the first season showed Will and Hannibal’s friendship blossoming, the second season takes it up a notch in ways I cannot explain without divulging too much information. The scenes in which they’re conversing provide some of the series’ most chilling moments. Each line is deliberately enunciated to create a tension which is deliciously thick, often leaving you gasping for breath. I was missing their interactions at the beginning of the second season, but it was fixed with brilliantly as the season progressed.
Of course, Hannibal isn’t without its flaws. After a while I was slightly sceptical of Will’s uncanny ability to perfectly predict the nature of a crime, which seemed more like tired writing than anything to advance the plot. Moreover, the romance in the second half the second season (which ends as abruptly as it begins) seems like an unnecessary complication. Laurence Fishburne, who plays Jack Crawford, head of the FBI Behavioural Science Unit, seems lost and utterly clueless about the events happening in his own department right under his nose. Even as a major character is killed off, their colleagues seem to weep only for three minutes, following which they completely ignoring their absence and not being bothered with it at all, which was a pity, as that murder, and the following scenes, were one of the most chillingly executed sequences in the show. Gore might also be a problem for some viewers, as the show is not at all reluctant in showing you organs or blood or other unspoken horrors. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but with the drama associated with the show, you may be able to tolerate the gore.
As the tension builds up, the second season concludes with two magnificent episodes. The second season’s finale was one of the best TV episodes I’ve ever seen (it’s also rated 9.9 on IMDb, for the curious). It is thematically different from the rest of the season, while still retaining the general tone of the series, giving us an unforgettable visual treat. The finale is emotionally satisfying and more – an impeccable end to an outstanding season. The inevitable cliff-hanger it leaves us with makes the wait for the next season even longer…
…which brings us to the bigger problem. Hannibal airs on NBC. Their viewership ratings aren’t that great (you probably didn’t even know it was airing in the first place). Call it poor marketing or niche interests… we arrive at the same conundrum. What happened the last time a genre-defining, ground-breaking, innovative show with a passionate fan-base failed to meet the high expectations of NBC executives? It didn’t exactly end well. NBC seems too trigger-happy in cancelling shows and I don’t want Hannibal to meet a similar fate. I hope that Bryan Fuller has more influence on the NBC board than Dan Harmon did.
At this point, I can only urge you to go on a quick two-season binge of Hannibal, and you’ll come out of it wondering why you hadn’t seen it before (you can buy me some cookies later).
For Indian viewers, Hannibal airs on AXN in the same week as the US! I haven’t seen an episode there, though, so I have no idea about the extent to which they will censor gore. It can’t be worse than Star though, who feel the book with Ishmael as the main character is Moby-**** (true story).