In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC
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In Canada: Thursdays, 10pm, CityTV
Serial killers, the doyennes of 90s cinema and TV largely thanks to a little known movie, Silence of the Lambs, that featured an equally little known character called Hannibal Lecter, are back with a vengeance this year. Although Criminal Minds has been chugging along for God knows how long, giving us deranged, implausible serial killer after deranged, implausible serial killer, and obviously Dexter has now been doing his thing for eight seasons, apparently this isn’t enough serial killing for TV because this year we’ve already had the debuts of The Following, Cult, and Bates Motel, a prequel to 1960s horror classic and original serial killer movie, Psycho.
And I’ve been wondering why, because largely they’ve had very little to offer that’s new, beyond more gore than was allowed 10-20 years ago. Lots of women getting raped and hacked up, with the writers having as much regard for the victims as their fictional sociopaths do – is this some kind of Faludi-esque backlash, a symptom of the resurgence of rape culture in society or simply a fashion, these things going in cycles?
So leave it to not quite the original but certainly one of the best serial killers to show us that there is room creatively for such shows and that they can still thrill and challenge without being exploitative. Because Hannibal Lecter is back, this time played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, in a prequel of sorts to one of my favourite movies, the much neglected cult favourite Manhunter based on Lecter creator Thomas Harris’s original book Red Dragon.
The show, written by Pushing Daisies creator and Heroes saviour Bryan Fuller, looks at Manhunter‘s Will Graham (played in the movie by CSI‘s William Petersen) and his early career, putting front and centre the man with “the mind of a psychopath”, who can empathise with and recreate the thoughts of serial killers in his mind. Importantly, it also expands on, changes and builds up how he first meets the man who would end up driving him crazy, whom he ultimately incarcerates and who in a sense defines him: Lecter himself. And they’re going to end up working together, even if Hannibal has a little secret that he’s keeping from Graham and the FBI.
Featuring a roster of fabulous actors as well as Thomas Harris characters familiar to any fan, it’s also absolutely fantastic.
Here’s a trailer.
One of the most fascinating literary characters comes to life on television for the first time: psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In this new drama from Bryan Fuller (“Pushing Daisies,” “Heroes”), based on the characters from Thomas Harris’ classic novels, we see where this incredible story began.
Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, “The Big C”) is a gifted criminal profiler who is on the hunt for a serial killer with the FBI. Graham’s unique way of thinking gives him the astonishing ability to empathize with anyone – even psychopaths. He seems to know what makes them tick. But when the mind of the twisted killer he’s pursuing is too complicated for even Will to comprehend, he enlists the help of Dr. Lecter, one of the premier psychiatric minds in the country. Armed with the uncanny expertise of the brilliant doctor, Will and Hannibal (known as a serial killer only to the audience) form a brilliant partnership and it seems there’s no villain they can’t catch. If Will only knew…
Fuller is a writer and an executive producer. Martha De Laurentiis (“Red Dragon,” “Hannibal”), Sara Colleton (“Dexter”), Jesse Alexander (“Lost,” “Heroes”) and Katie O’Connell also serve as executive producers. David Slade is the director/executive producer for the series pilot. “Hannibal” is produced by Gaumont International Television.
Is it any good?
Yes. It’s fabulous, both as a show in its own right and as a prequel to the movies.
Most interestingly, despite the obvious temptation to make this a show about Hannibal Lecter, this is a show about Will Graham. Now Graham, with the best will in the world, wasn’t the most electrifying of characters either on the page or in Manhunter (or its terrible, near-unwatchable remake Red Dragon). His one interesting trait, novel in the 1980s, was his ability to simulate the thoughts of serial killers, but everything from Profiler through to Millennium has done that now. It’s no surprise that in Silence of the Lambs, Graham is dumped unceremoniously by Harris in favour of the more interesting Clarice Starling.
What Fuller has done is to turn this ability into an actual psychological condition – something close to autism/Asperger’s but also to narcissistic sociopathy, in Graham’s own words. It’s something he has a hard time turning off and as a result, rather than the married man with a child living in Florida that we see in the book, we have a recluse who lives with dogs out in Virginia because he doesn’t like to socialise. It’s a bit of unfaithfulness to the book that is actually welcome, making Graham a worthy central character for the show, one who follows in the honourable path of mentally ill/challenge but helpful detectives that have preceded him in shows like Touching Evil, Monk, Cracker, Luther, Cracked et al.
Yet Another Brit (YAB), Hugh Dancy does a terrific job with Graham, making him a twitchy, eye-contact avoiding Aspie who has trouble dealing with people, channelling Petersen’s performance as Graham whenever he starts to simulate the feelings of others. Here, again, Fuller does a fantastic job, showing how Graham’s gift gives him incredible insights and allows him to make astonishing leaps of logic that are still within the realms of likelihood, rather than mere plot-advancing shortcuts. He also makes one of the show’s central draws the possibility that Graham will go mad and even kill others, if he allows himself to get too close to the crime or simulates the wrong kinds of thoughts in his mind.
Eventually, into Graham’s life comes Hannibal Lecter, here played by Yet Another Dane (YAD) (cf Banshee, New Amsterdam) Mads Mikkelsen (the villain of Casino Royale). Mikkelsen, who delivers a great performance but whose accent is unfortunately a tad thicker than is optimal, is far more in the Brian Cox school of Lecter-acting than the Anthony Hopkins school, offering a cold, clinical, detached but brilliant Lecter who, if it weren’t for his atrocious tastes in retro suits, would quite comfortably pass for a normal psychologist any day. Again, Fuller gives Lecter scenes that echo those of Manhunter – from which, incidentally, more than a few lines of dialogue are also culled, as homage rather than plagiarism – in which Lecter’s vast “evil Sherlock Holmes” intellect is used to chilling, minimalist effect. Indeed, perhaps the most chilling scene of all is Lecter’s first: a single, short, silent study of Lecter eating one of his cordon bleu meals that plays on our knowledge of the character.
Being a prequel, the show also effectively makes us all Will Grahams – when a copy cat killer arrives on the scene, it’s obvious, to the audience at least, exactly what Lecter is up to and knows it’s him, even though the FBI and Graham don’t. Here, we have a group of people familiar from all Harris’ books. Laurence Fishburne is superb as Graham’s boss FBI analyst Jack Crawford, vastly better than he was in CSI, and better than Dennis Farina and at least on a par with Scott Glenn. Dr Sidney Bloom has changed gender to become Dr Alana Bloom, a psychiatrist studying Graham and who has his best interests at heart, despite never having met him. Bloom fulfils a similar role as in the books – to keep an eye on Graham to prevent him getting too close to the crimes. Minor characters such as Jimmy Price and Freddie Lounds (who also gets a gender swap) also get acknowledged, although Lounds herself has yet to show up, and I expect Dr Chiltern will emerge at some point, too. And if you know Red Dragon, it’s entirely appropriate that this first case should involve Garrett Jacob Hobbs aka The Minnesota Shrike, the details of which are faithful to the book.
As you might expect from Fuller, who seems to delight in visually exciting shows (cf Pushing Daisies, Mockingbird Lane), the first episode is a visual feast. YAB, director and exec producer David Slade (Twilight: Eclipse, Awake, and various music vids), gives a Kubrickian precision to the show, especially when the OCD Hannibal is on-screen, and offers head nods to The Shining as well as Silence of the Lambs, such as when Hannibal listens to the Goldbach variations. But most of the visual flair is deployed to depict Graham’s dreams, nightmares and empathy: the very first scene is a visual treat that shows the audience how Graham’s skill works in practice, but later scenes give us more insight into how even the most mundane detail can trigger Graham’s empathy and imagination, leading to knowledge that mere logic could never produce. Importantly, although there is plenty of blood and guts (some of which get eaten, of course) and a lot of women are killed, it’s non-exploitative violence and usually off-screen. Victims are rarely just victims, there for a cheap thrill, families are there to show their grief; and when the worst happens, it’s never spelt out, just implied, leaving the audience to think for a change.
The first episode is pretty much near perfect, although new minor characters on the FBI team are a tad too Criminal Minds for comfort. Later episodes promise us Gillian Anderson (Scully from The X-Files in her first US TV appearance in years) as Lecter’s psychiatrist and Gina Torres (Suits) as Crawford’s wife. I really do hope the same quality can be maintained for the rest of the series, particularly once they start to run out of bits from the books to use. If it does, fingers crossed it survives the usual NBC policy of commissioning good dramas for a season, scheduling them in terrible slots, then cancelling them after just a few episodes.
Definitely one to watch.
PS There’s even a head nod to Petersen, with Graham having written a famous paper on forensics and insects, Petersen’s Grissom famously being the ‘bug guy’ on CSI.