There Will Be Spoilers
It just so happens that I finished catching up on the first season of Hannibal last week, the same week the air date for season two was announced (28th February, if you want to know, but final spoiler warning, don’t look at any promotional material for it if you’ve not caught up with season one). It was a somewhat protracted process on my part (more on that in a moment), but I’m ultimately glad I got through it. In charting the initial relationship between FBI Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), Hannibal is an odd mix of by-the-numbers criminal investigation drama and twisted fever dream /waking nightmare. It excites and infuriates in equal measure, sometimes at the same time, but it is a distinctive and interesting take on a character we all probably thought we’d had enough of by 2013.
To get an immediate gripe out of the way, and something for which I am responsible, colouring my subsequent viewing, I watched the first episode when it aired and thought ‘Okay, it’s fine I guess, but don’t feel the need to watch any more episodes.’ My curiosity had been sated. But as the swell of appreciation gathered and the buzz filtered through, I finally decided over the past few weeks to finish what I had begun. I had assumed each case would be of a “murder of the week” variety, so skipped rewatching the first episode. Unfortunately, that first case (in which a fella by the name of Garrett Jacob Hobbs has a penchant for sticking young women on deer antlers) turns out to be the main narrative thread of the whole series, and if not the crux of an episode, frequently being called back to. While “previously on…”’s, flashbacks and the like filled in the gaps, I did start to resent that so much attention was being given to it. That’s just a personal silly beef – but I would say that the Hobbs case is perhaps not especially interesting to begin with, certainly in comparison to some of the actual “murders of the week”.
And how about those then? Each supremely grisly corpse display instantly dispels any reservations I have with the show, offering the most imaginative Grand Guignol tableaus since Se7en. Any one case would be a full series arc in a series of Dexter (oh man, I knew the latter series were meant to be bad, but I’m halfway through series seven, and boy is it embarrassing), so it’s kind of a shame some are wrapped up within an episode (surely the travelling kidnap killer family and Lance Henriksen’s totem pole of death had legs?). Then again, others that maybe intersect a little better with the principal characters are indeed allowed more space to develop, crossing over multiple episodes, even with my misgivings about how much time is devoted to Hobbs. Regardless, the staging of each elaborate murder scene is what keeps you coming back.
And the visuals. Few shows are quite as stunning to behold as Hannibal, aesthetically rich and filled with bold colours and dark shadows. From a design point of view too it looks like a million bucks, with particular attention to detail when it comes to Hannibal’s suits, ties and culinary conjurings (thereby covering all the M&S departments and “not just food”). Also impressive is the sound design – there’s music, but classical compositions aside, it’s more of the ear-splitting, stomach-churning variety, peppered with strange noises to unsettle the audience and test your speaker system. If you were to sing the theme tune, it would be “NNNNEEEEEEEEEEEUUUUUURRRRR!” a few times, followed by “clunk clang clong”.
To be honest, as the first load of episodes played out, as much as I found the killings fascinating and the look, tone and style all great, I found the characters and narrative arc sorely lacking. It doesn’t help that we’re saddled with an unimaginative forensics team to act as Will’s sidekicks , who could have easily walked in from the set of a different police procedural series and no one would have batted an eyelid. At this point, I should declare I have not read any of Thomas Harris’ original books (I’ve seen Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon, so feel I’ve got a fair grasp of the story), but apparently they are all characters from the novels, so fair enough that they show up. It’s just they’re all super boring – though I admittedly do crack a little smile whenever I see Scott Thompson, not because of his work in Kids in the Hall (a pop culture blind spot on my part), but as Ricardo in Tim and Eric’s “C-Bund” sketch. Also dramatically redundant are Will’s other psychiatrist chum Dr Alana Bloom, and serial killer blogger Freddie Lounds, a take on Red Dragon’s sleazy journo but seemingly airlifted in from 2003, acting both as annoying antagonist and stale subplot stirrer. But it’s not all snores in the supporting cast. Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford is a steady hand and welcome presence, and though a personal subplot designed to bring depth to his character is a tad throwaway, it’s nevertheless effective, so too a slice of backstory featuring Anna Chlumsky that ties into a present investigation. And Gillian Anderson as Hannibal’s own psychiatrist is a chilly sparring partner in Dr Lecter’s mind-games.
As for the leads, Hugh Dancy gives a very good performance as Will Graham, making the rather clichéd character type of a brilliant but troubled mind his own. It’s not Dancy’s fault he’s not a particularly compelling character (get used to lots of waking up post-nightmare in a cold sweat), with so much of the show focused on Will flapping about being genius/crazy – we are constantly being reminded he is good at what he does, but it always seems more problematic than it’s worth (not a million miles from the lead in Homeland, played by none other than real-life wife Claire Danes). But that’s not to detract from Dancy’s work, and as the season progresses, he becomes more sympathetic and interesting. Plus, his visions and crime scene profiling techniques reminded me a lot of favourite terrible/amazing video game of mine, the Twin Peaks-esque Deadly Premonition. However, Mads Mikkelsen is the trump card, and the show is lucky to bag one of the best actors working today. His Hannibal is hard to figure out at first, the audience is left to imprint upon him their own assumed knowledge while he goes about his business not really doing anything juicy or fiendish. The show plays on this tension, on top of the friendship and respect that develops between Lecter and Graham, so when things do bubble over, it’s thrilling.
However, the series really comes into its own around the halfway point, with the aptly titled “Entrée” (each episode is cutely named after a term in French cuisine), or as I call it, the “Lambs” episode. For this is when Hannibal finally plays its Silence of the Lambs card, and while it feels indulgent, silly and something of a cop-out, the whole season perks up in the process. Eddie Izzard does his best (worst) Anthony Hopkins impression as another doctor turned serial killer, Dr Chilton makes his first appearance, and we get all sorts of nudges and winks – from the walk down a prison hall way mirroring that of Jodie Foster’s in the Jonathan Demme film, to Mikkelsen offering a version of the classic “having an old friend for dinner” line. By giving into audience expectations, it seems like cheap fan service, but it also means it can finally shake off the spectre of past Hannibal outings and do its own thing and do it well, understanding that while Lecter is a classy villain, he is a pulpy one too.
Hannibal ends up a much stronger proposition than when it started. Given a more compelling main story thrust, it would get a full recommendation, but it still worthwhile. It is evident though that this was a mere hors d’oeuvre – delicious, beautifully constructed, though insubstantial. From the looks of things, season two, with its smart inversion of the original character dynamic (Lecter free, Graham behind bars), promises to hit the ground running. Bryan Fuller and co were just setting the table. Now, here comes the main course.