Hannibal (2013) – Episodes 1 and 2: “Apéritif” and “Amuse-Bouche” – Written by Bryan Fuller and Jim Danger Grey; Directed by David Slade and Michael Rymer – Starring Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettiene Park, Scott Thompson, and Laurence Fishburne.
It took about two minutes for me to realize that I was going to describe HANNIBAL as The Following for grown-ups.
In my review of the Kevin Williamson-created FOX vehicle for Kevin Bacon, I wrote: “It’s all a bit disappointing. Carroll isn’t as clever as he thinks, Hardy isn’t as tortured, and all of the gore, which is supposed to be one of the selling points, is pointless.” The Following has yet to really find its way and once it became apparent to me that they were going to drag everything the hell out, I lost interest. Just rescue the kid. Give him back to his mom. Have victory sex. Move on to the next case.
Way back when HANNIBAL was first announced, I was pretty skeptical. Yes, it was being developed by Bryan Fuller, the guy responsible for three shows that people seemed to like, but which I never saw: Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Wonderfalls. Between that announcement and the show hitting the air, however, I became increasingly intrigued, largely thanks to the casting. Laurence Fishburne, Mads Mikkelson, Gina Torres, and Gillian Anderson were all added to the show, which made me think this show was just as likely to be amazing as it was to be a disaster. If they’d announced Kyle MacLachlan had been added to the cast I probably would have just emailed NBC $40 in the hopes they’d just know to send me the Blu-rays when they were ready for release.
My enthusiasm was tempered again by the disappointing Following and the okay-but-still-disappointing Cult, which made wonder if networks were just trying to capture the ratings success of shows like Dexter and American Horror Story without really investing in anything smart or well-made. Add that to the fact that NBC isn’t exactly on a hot streak of creating exciting new shows that don’t involve Blake Shelton.
I should add that perhaps none of this is actually fair to HANNIBAL but at the end of the day (and the start of the program’s run), I tuned in, ready to give HANNIBAL a shot.
I really like it.
This is decidedly grown-up television – it’s stylish, smart, and confident in ways that instantly signal you that the show is made by people who know what they’re doing. None of this is a guarantee that I’ll like the show, of course, but where shows like The Following and Cult feel like they are still figuring things out on the fly during their premiere episodes, HANNIBAL offers a much more assured product for our consumption.
Consumption is one of those little things that HANNIBAL uses to show us it’s clever, too, and that it will reward us for paying attention. The premise of HANNIBAL is that we’re getting a prequel to the Hannibal Lecter story – this is pre-Silence of the Lambs Lecter, and he’s been brought in by FBI Behavioral Sciences Director Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to work with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a criminal profiler who can “see” how crimes have unfolded due to his ability to empathize with the killers. If you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs or the sequels, you know that Dr. Lecter’s is also known as “Hannibal the Cannibal,” and HANNIBAL takes much delight in teasing you with the possibility that Dr. Lecter is not only eating people while working for the FBI but also feeding people to the FBI agents he’s working with.
I have so much respect for Bryan Fuller – or any writer – that puts small details like this into his show. These are small moments, almost irrelevant to the rest of the episode but it adds that little bit of spice to the episode and manages to build some real creep into the show. Is Lecter actually feeding humans to Will and Jack? Are the conversations he has with them while feeding them this food genuine? Taken simply on the surface, and taken simply from Will and Jack’s point of view, Dr. Lecter is giving them excellent food that he’s prepared for them while engaging in a genuine conversation about Will’s state of mind. (Officially, Jack sends Will to Lecter to make sure Will isn’t haunted by his empathetic nature.) Under the surface, however, we know that Lecter might be feeding them humans and we know that Lecter might simply be analyzing them without any empathy. That question and that balance is brilliant to watch unfold.
Honestly, the close ups of food in HANNIBAL are a hundred times more shocking than anything in The Following simply because of the work our minds engage in while watching it.
The show clearly wants you to think about food, too, while you’re watching the investigations play out because of how the camera focuses on the redness of a sauce, or the tenderness of a piece of meat, or the way the camera goes to a close-up of Lecter after Will eats a sausage and Jack eats some pork with the red sauce. Each episode is named after a style of French cuisine, too, and much of the promotional material shows Dr. Lecter with a napkin at his mouth.
I was a bit concerned in the first episode that Will was going to be completely unbearable to be around. His ability to experience empathy for killers is a torturous ability to have, and he’s no longer working in the field but simply teaching class at Quantico. Crawford pulls him in to be a special consultant on a case, and then Lecter gets pulled in to work with Will. You know Will is tortured because he has an unshaven face and sleeps on a couch a whole bunch. As much as I liked the style and tone of the first episode, I was equally as tired with the permanent rain cloud hanging over Will’s head. A little of this stuff goes a long way (especially on TV) and I was happy to see that it’s toned down (without disappearing) in episode 2.
The three-headed monster at the top of this show is the relationship between Jack, Will, and Lecter, and it is quickly established that we’re dealing with surrogate parents and their brilliant but troubled child. Crawford is incredibly concerned about Will’s well-being, but he makes it clear he wants Will in the field, actively solving crimes. Fishburne does a bang-up job walking the line between a concerned parent and the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science unit who sees Will as one of his most valuable assets. Mads Mikkelson’s Lecter is also concerned about Will, but just like Jack, he appears to have dual desires for Will, wanting him in the field because it makes him a more interesting patient. In essence, then, both Crawford and Lecter want Will in the field, but Jack wants him out there to solve crimes and Hannibal wants him investigating because it makes Will a better study.
There’s a very well-designed set of secondary characters here, too. Whenever any of them appear on screen you know it’s for a specific purpose, not just because Fox is paying for that Ashmore kid so get him on the screen. The style here is wonderful, too, soaked in rich greens and blues that lend a sense of earthiness to the show. HANNIBAL will also give you shocking images, but they don’t play them for shock value. Instead, like the colors, like the use of food, the depictions of a woman laid bare with deer antlers sticking through her or mushrooms growing off the bodies of human corpses are deployed to soak the show into your mind instead of hammering it so you jump out of your seat.
Even when there’s a genuine shock moment, the jolt isn’t played as the point of the scene but as the thing that interrupts the scene. In episode 2, we see a reporter talking with a cop who’s about to get fired because of the story the reporter wrote. She’s selling him on letting her set him up with a private security firm when a killer just appears and blows his brains out with a gun. We see the bang, the cop fall, and blood get splattered over the reporter’s face, but this all happens bang, bang, bang and we’ve cut away from it. We don’t see any build-up to this moment – it’s sudden and brutal and then put in the rearview because the point isn’t that someone gets shot, but that the reporter gets someone killed.
The real reason to tune in to HANNIBAL, though, is Mads Mikkelsen. With a neat, ordered look that makes me think he thinks this is a 1970s movie (like Hitchcock’s underrated Frenzy, a film with a food and clothing obsession of its own), Mikkelsen coolly and calmly handles every situation with the detached air of James Bond’s personality-less twin brother. Mikkelsen owns every scene he’s in without ever upstaging anyone. It’s a brilliant performance of a brilliantly-written character. Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter is already more of his own character than any of the 8 billion serial killer characters created in the image of Anthony Hopkin’s Dr. Lecter. Where The Following‘s Wannabe Lecter can’t escape Hopkins’ long shadow, Mikkelsen does it immediately even though he’s playing the same guy as Hopkins.
All of which is yet another example of how HANNIBAL is made by professionals. There’s no sense that anything is being figured out as we go – no, HANNIBAL is already coming across like a hit show in season 2 that knows exactly what it wants to do and how to do it.
HANNIBAL is good television.