It’s hard not to love something that gets middle America riled up. Visitors to the country will know that America is really two countries, arranged like the components of a loaf of bread; the outer crusts, redolent with flavour and culture, are a country of the sophisticated, modern and secular (and incidentally, diverse in colour). The interior is dense, tasteless, and largely white. In case I lost you in the metaphor, I’m saying that middle America sucks, a point that has been brought home to me from reading that many regional NBC stations are refusing to show the series Hannibal for fear of offending. It says volumes about the failings of Federalism that such a tragedy can occur because, you see, Hannibal is unmissable.
It’s not in my nature to write reviews of TV shows for several reasons. One, I don’t happen to own a television. Two, finding a TV reviewer on WordPress is like trying to find sand on a beach: anyone with two eyes and a working spinal cord can have an opinion on a TV show. Three, I don’t care for the profession of reviewing things, unless you’re Roger Ebert, and since the world will never see his like again I rsther think that the golden age of reviewing things is over. Yet I am compelled to write about Hannibal. So what is this show? It’s not a murder mystery per se, nor is it a police procedural drama. Hannibal is, at least theoretically, a drama. But since so little of it is dramatic in the traditional sense this doesn’t describe it fully. It makes sense to call it a psychological drama, because Hannibal is a show in love with psychology.
Some facts, then: Hannibal is about Hannibal Lecter, notorious serial killer and cannibal, in the early days of his career, and his developing relationship with Special FBI Agent Will Graham, who possesses “perfect empathy”, meaning he can understand killers on an intuitive level. Hannibal acts as Graham’s guide, mentor and psychiatrist, while quietly going about the business of killing and feeding his victims to his friends without them knowing. The two form an ironic counterpoint to each other: the sophisticated, approachable and charming man is an unfeeling monster, and the rustic, rude and rumpled man is the man who feels everything. They exist in a Yin/ Yang arrangement that forms the basis of the relationship of the series. The purported basis of Hannibal is that tired CSI-solving-a-murder-every-week storytelling we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the show doesn’t really care about these – killers are often picked up as incidental plot points, not as the aim of each episode: the story of Hannibal does not concern the random (and confusingly prolific) serial killers of the east coast. It is about a pair of people brought together by circumstance.
Will Graham’s metier is suffering – we see him losing sleep, sleep walking, and having waking hallucinations of bloody corpses- and he suffers because his gift is to see what others can’t and to understand what others won’t – he sees horror in people. He sees the hidden world behind our eyes. His suffering brings to mind those early Christian martyrs punished for having visions. He is played to perfection by Hugh Dancy, an actor who portrays the full range of suffering: a man who, it seems, can sweat, frown, grit his teeth and look murderous while simultaneously appearing naive, innocent, lost and likable. This is a nearly impossible trick to pull of.
Hannibal Lecter, meanwhile, is portrayed to near-perfection by Mads Mikkelsen, last widely known for playing the villain who cried tears of blood in the greatest Bond film yet made (Casino Royale (2005)). I say “portrayed to near-perfection” and this is no fault of Mikkelsen, who exudes an air of quiet menace in every scene. Mikkelsen has only one fault – he’s not Anthony Hopkins – but then neither am I (regretfully) and it’s a fault he shares with most of humanity except Anthony Hopkins. Portraying a serial killer and a cannibal who is also sophisticated and (somehow) likable requires a depth and finesse that would escape most actors. The relationship between these two actors carries most of the show.
But not quite, because Hannibal is that strangest of animals: a totally original TV series. While it uses many different characters from the Thomas Harris series of books, it does something that no other contemporary show does, except for perhaps Mad Men; it doesn’t kiss any ass. There is no overt love story (Lecter and Graham have this much in common: they are not loved). The show is not about catching a different murderer every week. Characters we expect to reappear fail to, as if suddenly written out. Gillian Andersen shows up, more or less randomly, as does Eddie Izzard (who has a star turn as somebody who thinks he’s the Chesapeake Ripper), and Gina Torres has lung cancer for no apparent reason. Laurence Fishbourne wanders about, frowning, goading the two main characters into action, but has no particular purpose. Hannibal does not stoop to its audience: it expects it to keep up or shut up. I like that, an awful lot. I love a show that stretches me.
And for a show that more or less dispenses the rule book of how to write a weekly serial, Hannibal goes further, further even than Mad Men. Something has to be said for the direction, which seems to operate on the “less is more” principle, seemingly less like a TV series and more like a David Fincher movie. This, I have to say, is a major plus, not only because David Fincher is the greatest director living but also because it allows the scenery, which is occasionally exquisite, to dwarf the actors. When Lecter and Graham sit in Lecter’s palatial psychiatrist’s office in opposing Le Corbusier chairs, the oppressive size of the room makes things all the more eerie. We, the audience, are aware that Will Graham is living and working beside the living embodiment of death: a man who, with a sardonic smile, would only too happily slice out his still-beating heart and fry it. We, the audience, are gripped with horror because, for all his talents, Will Graham cannot see the manifest horror that casually offers him psychiatric tidbits. He is blind to the monster in front of him.
Music serves an immense role in Hannibal, because the score echoes more or less constantly through an episode. The music is eerie, discordant and, again, redolent of David Fincher. It carries overtones both of the soundtracks of The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, both Fincher films with scores written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross. It also, unless I’m much mistaken, often sounds like the incidental music of The Shining. As someone who’s affected by music to an intense degree, the constant eerie moanings of the music have me gripping the arms of my chair, as they underline the absolute horror of each new murder, each new investigation, and the near constant presence of a man who would easily kill every single one of the FBI agents and serve them up to his dinner guests. In contrast to a show like Mad Men, which relies on incidental music of the era only, Hannibal positively revels in its discordant themes.
If Hannibal revels in its discordant themes, it also revels in blood and horror to a degree not often seen on television. This is the aspect, I suspect, that is causing it to be dropped by local NBC networks. Hannibal gloats and shoves horror at your face. In one episode we see a man who makes blood angels by eviscerating the shoulders of corpses, in another, a man who buries people alive to grow mushrooms from their still-living flesh (this was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen). Hannibal pulls no punches. Nor should it: if your subject matter is killers and killing, you have to show corpses and blood. It’s not like you can throw a silver cloche over them. It is this brutality that unnerves many would-be viewers, but make no mistake; Hannibal may be revelling in death, but doesn’t glorify it. Murders and corpses are revealed casually, in a “facts of life” sort of way. Perhaps it is this casual attitude to horror that offends people: Hannibal doesn’t display mawkish curiosity towards its subject matter or glorify killers. It shows them in a factual, non-dramatised way. That is what makes it so compelling.
Hannibal, in short, is a strange beast, and one threatened by backwards attitudes and indifference. We’ve recently heard that it will get a second series: I, for one, was greatly relieved. Strange, unique beasts are sometimes worth keeping around, particularly if it serves as an antidote to Honey Boo Boo.