NBC’S HANNIBAL – CAN IT ESCAPE GENRE LIMITATION?

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If you’re as big a horror movie geek as I am, it’s a good time to have a cable connection. Not only has A&E launched a prequel series to the PYSCHO franchise in ‘Bates Motel’, NBC has launched ‘Hannibal’, another modern day prequel/re-visioning of a classic property, this time being Thomas Harris’ RED DRAGON novel and subsequent series, of course most notably adapted into the film SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

However, just like the aforementioned Norman Bates reboot, ‘Hannibal’ only really offers moments of brilliance, and is frustratingly held back by some of the limitations of the crime procedural genre. The scenes between the primary players positively crackle, while the actual plot of the show often feels middling, and takes an effort on the part of the viewer to be invested in.

Developed by nerdgod Bryan Fuller (his long list of credits include a lot of writing for the STAR TREK franchise, story head on ‘Heroes’, creator of ‘Wonderfalls’ and ‘Pushing Daisies’) ‘Hannibal’ has a ton of talent involved, and comes really close to being great as a result. Directed by David Slade (of HARD CANDY, an unforgettable and unsettling film starring Ellen Page), this series is all kinds of beautiful.

Will Graham has always had a uniquely heightened sense of empathy, and Slade’s visual representation of such a weird superpower is wonderful. We see Graham travel back in time, until he sees himself as the killer, performing horrific crimes and understanding why. One of my favourite things about the film RED DRAGON is how Edward Norton portrayed Graham as being disgusted by his unique gift, of being able to understand why troubled people do horrific things, and we get a similair portrayal here. Played by Hugh Dancy, this version of Graham is a diagnosed aspergian autist, and his reversion to sweating, rambling fear when he tries to describe his insights into killers is fantastic.

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Fuller has described he wanted to make Hannibal Lecter a Hitchcock bomb in the series, i.e. something the audience is aware of from the beginning and just waiting to see go off. The team behind ‘Hannibal’ nail this effect completely. Laurence Fishburne, playing the tough-guy/straight-man to Dancy’s eye contact-avoiding social neurotic, visits Lecter in an early scene that positively drips with tension, as Hannibal quietly shaves a pencil with a razor, describing how he’s always enjoyed doing things in an old-fashioned and…hand’s on way.

As it turns out, Lecter was only paid a visit to see if he would enlist his psychiatric services to the FBI, who would like to have Graham secretly profiled and made fit for duty. Thus begins one of the oddest buddy-cop set ups in TV history, and all of the greatest moments of the pilot. Hannibal is played to perfection by Mads Mikkelsen, most well known as the testicle-whipping Le Chiffre in CASINO ROYALE. Of course, the terrifying thing of Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter was just how calm and accepting he was about his disgusting habits, and Mikkelsen taps into a similar mood. He pauses to enjoy himself as he watches Graham eat human meat he has secretly served to him. He smiles wryly while chewing a meal of fried up person. The creepy sense of humour isn’t there, but I don’t think it would have suited this version of the character, anyhow. Quiet stares that go on too long and self-assured condescending tones are the truly terrifying and off-putting aspects of Hannibal, and Mikkelsen gets that.

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As beautiful and well-acted as the series is, as tense, eery and sometimes horrifically disgusting as some of the scenes can be, unfortunately the reason ‘Hannibal’ never quite makes it for me is how plain it feels. Too much of the pilot episode feels like just another crime show, a mismatched pair, one with premonition abilities, trying to get to the bottom of gruesome and grizzly murders. Those scenes the sparkle do so with such luminosity that it’s just a drag being pulled through expository scenes and occasionally overwrought dialogue (“It’s like I’m talking to a shadow suspended on dust.” Graham describes as to how it feels to have his unique powers).

Everything not involving Dancy and Mikkelsen veers on just plain bad. A blogger named Freddie Lounds chases after Graham, hoping to learn more about the ghastly and mysterious murders, but her habit of appearing up at crime scenes, unexplained, unannounced and apparently completely accepted by all investigators, not only gets old but ridiculous. Fishburne as Jack Crawford, the calm and concerned boss of Will, has to plod his way through a lot of rough dialogue. From pure exposition like “Are you telling me that because you’re a visiting psychology teacher here at the university that…?” to the unforgettable and completely out-of-left-field “USE THE LADIES ROOM!”, his character feels completely superfluous.

I think ‘Hannibal’ has the potential to be an incredible show, and if it trusts itself enough to focus on the really interesting story at it’s heart, it will be. Will and Hannibal can relate to each other in a pretty shocking way, and an unforgettable breakfast scene where the two weirdly bond and seem to, for a moment, understand each other, is the exact kind of thing I hope the show gravitates more and more towards. Because we’ve seen graphic death and mismatched detectives and even beautiful cinematography/directing and wonderful acting plenty of times on TV. But the story of of two men desperate to understand themselves, finding a weird sort of connection in someone who may as well be his antithesis…that’s the kind of interesting and complex thing television needs more of.

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