Hannibal may be the oddest show to ever air on network television, at least this side of Twin Peaks or Pushing Daisies. Created by Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies) and based on Thomas Harris’ famous Hannibal Lecter novels, the show began as an artistic, grisly, psychological crime series with procedural elements and by its third season, evolved into artistic, grisly, suspenseful, surreal quasi–love story between Dr. Lecter and his FBI nemesis Will Graham.
In short, the show felt like a cable series that somehow stumbled onto NBC, and although three seasons was way too short (Fuller only managed to tackle three of his planned six seasons), NBC should be praised for allowing this to air as long as it did. The show never lit up the ratings (Hannibal tallied respectable numbers for a premium series, but not so much for a network show), and the violence at times rivaled Dexter in its levels of gruesomeness. In lesser hands, the show could have devolved into an exercise of sadism and grotesquery, but Fuller deftly tempered whatever luridness may be inherit in the premise with stellar writing, nail-biting suspense, and a focus on the characters and their oft-dysfunctional (and psychologically unhealthy) relationships.
The show’s writing itself is brilliant. The series serves as a prequel of sorts to Harris’s Red Dragon, the first novel in the book series, and charts the relationship between Dr. Lecter and FBI Special Investigator Graham, a relationship that eventually becomes equal parts acidic, abusive, and codependent. In the pilot, Graham, who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum and struggles with his innate ability to empathize with psychopaths and serial killers, meets Dr. Lecter for the first time, and they investigate the Minnesota Shrike, a serial killer of college-aged girls. The pilot feels self-contained and ratchets up the suspense until the episode’s bloody conclusion while also laying the groundwork for the series to come. If suspenseful TV is your calling, there are few better scripts to study—the act breaks are some of the best as far as network series go. And even if that’s not your thing, the character work is worth a look, with each character jumping off the page (and the screen). Also take a look at their introductions. Hannibal’s in particular is darkly playful and perfectly captures the man-eating psychiatrist.
At times, the series plays almost like a remix of the original novels and adaptations, and Fuller repurposes the books’ events in ways stay true to the story yet allow the audience to keep guessing what will happen next. (For example, in the show’s third season, Fuller and co. move up a plot point that initially occurred late in Red Dragon‘s third act to wring out all suspense they could.) As a result, the show feels less like a rehashing of stale leftovers and more like a fresh take on an existing recipe. (Don’t worry… no more food jokes.) Every aspect of the show’s production is consummate—not just the writing, but the cinematography, editing, set design, props (check out Janice Poon’s prop food, although be forewarned…spoilers abound…)—but the show’s greatest draws apart from the writing are Hugh Dancy as Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen as “Hannibal the Cannibal” himself. Both had tough acts to follow, but none more so than Mikkelsen, who somehow took Anthony Hopkins’s iconic role and made it his own, at times besting Hopkins’s Academy Award–winning performance.
There may never be another show like Hannibal, on network TV or otherwise, which makes the 39 episodes we do have feel that much more special. Even if you’re not familiar with the source material, Hannibal is definitely worth checking out—if you have the stomach for it–(okay, I lied.)