'Hannibal': TV's Happiest Meal

Equal parts lifestyle porn and horror movie, NBC's cult hit has quite a bite

Mads Mikkelsen as the title character in NBC's 'Hannibal.' The cult show about Thomas Harris' gourmet serial killer is currently in its third (and last) season. Credit: Ian Watson/NBC

Hannibal often gets praised as the best serial-killer drama on TV — but that's kinda like praising Treetop Cat Rescue as the finest show about getting kittens out of trees. As a subject for thrillers exploring the dark side of the human psyche, serial killers rank several notches below cats, clowns, mimes or those airport cops who drive the beeping golf carts. In fact, it's fair to say that no TV cliché sucks as hard as serial killers, from Dexter to Stalker to the One Where Kevin Bacon Quotes Edgar Allen Poe.

But Hannibal has always been different, which is why it's a genuine phenomenon. It's a one-of-a-kind horror story, reinventing Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the Baltimore bon vivant and cannibal from the long-running Thomas Harris franchise that seemed creatively exhausted years ago. Over the first two seasons, Hannibal managed to dart around the usual eye-roller clichés, with a lot of help from dashing Eurotrash heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen. The show works because it's so grotesquely sensual — horror as lifestyle porn. In a strange way, it's more of a cooking show than a crime show: Like any Top Chef contestant, Mikkelsen's Hannibal is fussy, vain, ingenious, a control freak with a monstrous ego. He styles himself as an aesthete, and he just wants to fix his gourmet cuisine his way — as Jerry Seinfeld might say, "Let the man make his soup."

Of course, his soup is made out of people, so he's developed a sick psychosexual bond with his FBI pursuers Will (Hugh Dancy) and Jack (Laurence Fishburne). In last season's climax, they tried to arrest him at his home in Baltimore — not their smartest move. As Will told Jack, "He'll try to kill you in the kitchen for convenience. It makes it easier for him to prepare the tartare." After the resulting bloodbath, Hannibal flees to Europe, skipping luxuriously from Paris to Florence to Palermo with his wonderfully conflicted muse-shrink, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, played by the brilliant Gillian Anderson, at his side, pretending to be his wife. As she explains at a posh party, "My husband has a very sophisticated palate. He's very particular about how I taste."

This season, he's enjoying his European vacation the Hannibal way: He gets a gig as an academic Dante expert, which he obtains by eating an Italian professor for dinner and then stealing his identity. Dr. Du Maurier keeps telling herself she's just there to observe a case study, but she's toxically attracted to the whole erotic escapade. When she removes an ice pick Hannibal has just buried in a guest's skull, he purrs, "Technically, you killed him."

Will and Jack are still hunting him, and as usual they have complicated feelings about the fugitive. Will and Hannibal are madly in love, and they know it. As Hannibal admits, their love can have only one consummation: "I have to eat him."

Unfortunately, NBC has announced this summer will be Hannibal's Last Supper, which is only shocking because it raises the question of why it allowed a drama this experimental anywhere near its airwaves in the first place. Guess they were hoping for a more commercially successful cannibalism drama. (A petition and Twitter campaign to rescue the show — #SaveHannibal — is in the process of finding the orphan show a new home.)

Hannibal balances Grand Guignol horror with a not-quite-smirking sense of silliness. The key reference point is Dracula, specifically the incarnation played by the late, great Christopher Lee, who brought out the James Bond/Hugh Hefner fantasy in the myth. Lee's Dracula, in his castle full of concubines, was a connoisseur rather than a neurotic. Likewise, on Hannibal, everything looks good — the furniture, the fashion, the food — even when you realize the food is you.