Looking back at the beautiful insanity of NBC’s Hannibal

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Promotional Poster for Season 1 of Hannibal

It shouldn’t exist.

If you had asked anyone in the spring of 2013 if they thought the origin story of a cannibalistic serial killer could work on a broadcast network, they would’ve said “no way.” Yet exist it did and TV would never be the same.

Hannibal premiered on April 4, 2013, on NBC. In a rare vote of confidence from a network, NBC placed a straight to series order for the show. Hindsight shows us this was in part due to an international licensing agreement NBC had with Gaumont International (the show’s primary producer). So Hannibal was coming and I don’t think anyone knew just what was about to show up on their TV screens.

The characters and plot were based on the popular novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Many know of Dr. Hannibal Lector thanks to the charismatic portrayal of the character by actor Anthony Hopkins in Silence of The Lambs (which Hopkins won an Oscar for). But in this adaptation you have Hannibal played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, most recognizable to North American audiences for his role as the villain in the James Bond film Casino Royale. Until this point, Hopkins was considered by many to be the definitive portrayal of Dr. Lector but that notion would soon face a serious challenge.

Alongside Mikkelson, Hugh Dancy played the co-lead role of Will Graham. A role previously played by Bryan Cox in Manhunter, and Edward Norton in Red Dragon. The relationship between Will and Hannibal would form much of the backbone of this unique series. Said relationship was made believable largely due to the incredible chemistry shared by Dancy and Mikkelson. Alongside the leads, you had Laurence Fishburn (The Matrix Trilogy) as Jack Crawford, Caroline Dhavernes as Dr. Alana Bloom (a character know as Alan Bloom in the books and movies) and Hettienne Park as CSI Beverly Katz rounding out the supporting cast.

Hannibal was an exceptionally cast TV show. Every actor brought their characters to life and it was plain everyone was having a heck of a time playing in this world. Along with those leading roles, the series would see incredible guest turns from the likes of Anna Chlumsky, Eddie Izzard, Raul Esparza, and Dana Scully herself, Gillian Anderson (who would join the main cast in season 3). All of these incredible actors brought weight and charisma to each character they portrayed. What was an outlandish and borderline absurd premise was given substance and grounded (to an extent) by the work of those on screen.

Hannibal routinely pushed the limits of what could be shown on network television. Make no mistake, this show is as dark and as violent as any I have ever seen. That includes the more graphic shows on HBO and Showtime. What this show was allowed to portray on screen never ever ceased to amaze me. That being said, what was often shown was obscured by darkness (and there was never any nudity or extreme cursing).From an episode featuring a totem pole made of bodies to a particularly haunting sight midway through season 3 which I won’t spoil here. Yet for all the horrific images that showed on my TV screen, it never felt like it was just for violence’s sake. Every image in Hannibal had a purpose. Part of what made the show watchable was just how outlandish each tableau presented was, these were things that could never happen in the real world which allowed the show to exist in an almost dream-like (or rather nightmarish) state.

Early on it became apparent that Hannibal would be more than just a show about “awesome serial killers being awesome” (to quote Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall), it would be a meditation on the nature of violence and what it does to those who try and fight against it. That examination of violence would be centered upon the characters of Will and Hannibal.

The character of Will Graham is a gifted criminal profiler who has a habit of getting much too close to the minds of the killers he chases. This gift makes him an invaluable asset to FBI Agent Jack Crawford, so Jack elects to use Will’s gift to his advantage to catch serial killers who would otherwise evade capture. Dr. Lector is brought into the fold by Jack to keep Will from slipping into madness but the Doctor’s true intentions for Will would become clear much later. With each killer that Will apprehends, his psyche becomes more and more fragile as he struggles to maintain his humanity when forced to face the worst of mankind again and again.

Hannibal’s true nature is not treated as a secret to be revealed to the audience. In fact, it is clear from the very beginning. But as played by Mikkelson, he is a character so smooth, so unassuming, the viewer can completely understand how the characters fail to see him for what he truly is. Lector is a man who simply sees people as objects to be played with (and if they’re rude, eaten). Hannibal views Will as a chance to perform a little experiment. Here is a man who is the closest thing to an equal Hannibal as ever had, just with opposite impulses. What happens when those impulses are toyed with and jumbled up?

Much of the arc of season one would focus on Hannibal as he pushes Will further and further into the very darkness Will is trying to stay away from. Yet over the course of those thirteen episodes, a friendship begins to develop between Hannibal and Will. A twisted and perverse friendship but a friendship nonetheless. Which makes it all the more tragic that Hannibal is simply manipulating Will for his own twisted interest.

That’s enough plot summary though. To say any more would be to ruin much of the surprise that comes with watching the show unfold for yourself. Part of watching Hannibal is proceeding further down the rabbit hole that Bryan Fuller constructed for these characters. With each passing episode, it feels as though the show divorces itself from reality more and more until it exists in something like a dream. The events shown on screen are so outlandish, and the way the characters speak so esoteric, it borders on pretentious. Yet, for most of its 39 episodes, Hannibal avoids that pitfall (only briefly in the first half of season 3 do the show’s artistic tendencies become a little too unrestrained). The dialogue is so rich, and the imagery so beautiful (particularly in the aforementioned first half of season 3, which was filmed on-location in Florence, Italy) and frightening that it’s almost impossible to look away from the show.

Are those 1000 words already? I feel as though I could go on and on about Hannibal. There is so much to say about this eccentric, beautiful, niche show. I could go into more depth about every part of the show but perhaps that is something saved for a more detailed episode-by-episode look at the show. Said analysis would also allow me to be more critical of the show than this post was. However, my purpose was not to critique the show, but to hopefully convey why in this era of “too much TV” Hannibal is a show that is worth your time.

Hannibal is most assuredly a bi-product of the modern age of TV. An age where creativity reigns and even shows with the smallest audiences can live multiple years. Even after season 1 was ordered many assumed it would be a one-and-done show, instead we got 3 incredible, tense, and memorable seasons.

Ok, that’s enough. Go watch this show.