'Hannibal': The Sick Genius of TV's Darkest Show

How NBC's revisionist take on pop culture's favorite serial killer transformed into must-see TV

By
Gillian Anderson, Mads Mikkelsen and Tom Wisdom
Gillian Anderson, Mads Mikkelsen and Tom Wisdom in 'Hannibal.' Brooke Palmer/NBC

Watching a TV show about Hannibal Lecter in the year of our lord 2015 brings to mind one of the good doctor’s most deliciously deadly double entendres: "I'm having an old friend for dinner." Sure, we had some fun together once. . .but isn't it past time for a last supper? Created by novelist Thomas Harris, the iconic psychiatrist/gourmand/cannibal's screen history has had its highs (Michael Mann's understated, underrated Manhunter; Jonathan Demme's grim, gray Oscar-winning classic The Silence of the Lambs) and its lows (Ridley Scott's inedible sequel Hannibal; Brett Ratner's empty-calorie prequel Red Dragon). Meanwhile, the role has become so synonymous with Anthony Hopkins that seeing actor Mads Mikkelsen suit up and chow down can feel something like sacrilege. Lecter's maxim may be "Eat the rude," but even he'd likely forgive viewers for turning down another helping.

So here's some advice: Forget the past, sit down and be prepared to clean your plate. Hannibal returns for its third season tonight at the tail end of NBC's primetime lineup — a fact that, if you've seen at least five minutes of virtually any of its baroque, bloody-as-hell episodes, is almost as shocking as anything that's happened on the series. But regardless of whether this culinarily perverse, chops-licking procedural had appeared on a network or a premium cable channel, the series would still feel like an absolutely singular achievement. It is a magnificently macabre drama that looks and feels like absolutely nothing else on TV.

Helmed by former Star Trek: Voyager and Pushing Daisies writer/producer Bryan Fuller, the show is a jaw-drop of a journey into the strange minds of two characters: FBI profiler Will Graham (a twitchy and vulnerable Hugh Dancy), whose unique suite of spectrum disorders enables him get inside the heads of the most brutal psychopaths; and his best friend/nemesis Hannibal Lecter, played by Mikkelsen as an aloof demigod with perfect manners and a killer wardrobe.

Hannibal's main victim: realism itself. Little of the series' stylishly surreal look and operatic tone resembles the sad, squalid cruelty of real-world serial killers. But Fuller sacrifices verisimilitude on the altar of visuals for good reason. Horror uses violence to give voice to emotional extremes that the vocabulary of every day life can't articulate — think The Shining's murderous ghosts embodying Jack Torrance's abusive alcoholic rage, or Game of Thrones depicting warfare's cyclical slaughter with a literal avalanche of corpses rising up to kill again. This revisionist look at Lecter's grand-guignol-gourmet misadventures, however, has a tendency to Ginsu-cut out the metaphorical middlemen. The near-constant dream sequences and hallucinations of a black stag-antlered demon transform the characters' fears into tenebrous terrors. People don't just have "visions" that weave in and out of the narrative here; they witness metaphysical fountains of blood that threaten to drown out the world in a crimson tide. And then they head to the kitchen.

The show's living, breathing monsters are no less fond of symbolism. Here, serial killers aren't just murderers but sculptors, painters, performance artists — and, of course, cooks — with the human body as a canvas of choice. Victims are buried alive in a mushroom garden so that the fungal growths can connect them in a world that keeps us apart, or they're arranged in a massive round color-wheel tableau that, seen from a distance, resembles a giant eye. (The better to stare at a god that isn't there, my dear.) Crimes are staged like exhibits in a museum: A judge is blinded to represent the justice his courtroom couldn’t provide; a forensics investigator is systematically dissected. Deranged creative types transmit their unspeakable thoughts, and investigators analyze them — it's the dialogue between a horror filmmaker and a film critic by another name.

Even when the show doubles as a workplace drama (for a show with such expressionist ways of depicting evil, its portrayals of adult friendships are pleasantly understated), it still thrives on toxic dynamics. Think about your social circles, IRL or online: Chances are good that the most unpleasant people you know didn’t get that way on their own. Someone's egging them on, bringing out the worst in them. In its own cranked-to-11 way, that's Will and Hannibal: Lecter pushes his friend to the brink of murder and madness; Graham inflates his cohort's already god-sized ego and drives him to commit ever more grandiose atrocities. It's not quite the same as your friend who became insufferable the moment some asshole started faving all their cattiest tweets — but it's close. Then the show's imagery weaponizes those connections into art-murder spectacles that end lives and fever-dream fantasy sequences that sever the series' ties to reality. Welcome to Hannibal's nightmare.

This is a show that leaves you thinking that maybe the world is a little bit worse for its presence — a mark of all great horror. And whether you're a fan of the genre or a practitioner, you've got to be like Will Graham voluntarily connecting with the worst humanity has to offer. You must be willing to turn to the work and say "just fuck me up." In this series, that thrillingly self-destructive impulse is invited — and then rewarded a hundredfold with some of the most gorgeous visuals of murder and cooking you've ever seen. When you binge on Hannibal, Hannibal binges back. Bon appétit.

x