NBC’s bloody brilliant “Hannibal” may not reverse the network’s tragic ratings tailspin all by itself. But it’s already a huge improvement over the last show to inhabit the Thursday night 9 p.m. timeslot. Given that show, “Do No Harm,” only lasted three episodes, though, that’s not saying a lot. Still “Hannibal” is one of the best new shows of the midseason, and one of the few to challenge ratings-hog rival CBS at its own game.
CBS has established itself as the go-to network for cop shows, crime shows and police procedurals (to wit: “Blue Bloods,” “Criminal Minds,” “CSI,” “CSI: NY,” “Elementary,” “Golden Boy,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “The Mentalist,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Person of Interest”). Unable to compete (NBC’s once-strong “Law & Order” franchise has been reduced to simply “Law & Order: SVU”), the Peacock Network has hitched its wagon to a star. A deadly one.
Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal” book series has inspired several popular films, starting with 1986’s excellent Manhunter and topping out in 1991’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. A prequel focusing entirely on erudite cannibal Hannibal Lecter was attempted with 2007’s Hannibal Rising. It didn’t pan out. So the idea of making a TV series out of the adventures of young Hannibal Lecter is not without its risks.
Fortunately we’ve got Bryan Fuller working as creator and writer here. “Hannibal” is considerably more serious than his previous TV work (“Dead Like Me,” “Pushing Daisies” and the tragically curtailed “Munsters” update “Mockingbird Lane”). Still, he handles it like a pro.
The events of the series take place just before Manhunter (or Red Dragon as it’s known in book form). Despite the title, our main man is Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, ranging far from his BBC roots in Madame Bovary, David Copperfield and Elizabeth I). Will’s a psychology professor—not yet an FBI agent, but a “special consultant” brought in by FBI honcho Laurence Fishburne. Graham’s gift is the ability to empathize with aberrant minds and to “see” how crimes were committed through their eyes (a skill given nifty visual treatment in the series). His problem is that he has borderline Aspergers and doesn’t socialize well with “normal” people. To help out, the FBI (perhaps unwisely) pairs him up with eminent therapist/closet psycho killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen from Casino Royale, giving the famous character a more European spin).
There’s a danger this mismatched crime-solving duo could look a lot like “Elementary”—only with Dr. Watson eating people on the sly. Instead, “Hannibal” plays it smart and twisty. You’re never sure where their relationship is going. In the long term, it’s hard to imagine how this storyline will play out. Will Graham will have to be a particularly bad crimesolver to miss the fact that his partner is a serial killing cannibal for the next three or four seasons.
But so far, the show is a creepy, surprisingly gory thrill ride. It’s designed to compete against well-cast, censor-free basic cable shows (“American Horror Story,” “Dexter,” “The Killing”) and not boring old network prime-time. If this doesn’t add some life to NBC’s bloodless lineup, nothing will.