In movies and TV shows, violence is often entertaining. In real life, though, violence can be grisly, horrifying, brutal, uncompromising, disturbing and even melancholy.
We (and I mean consumers of American entertainment as a whole, not so much a particular group of people) are often too lenient about the violence in entertainment. Many shows use violence as shorthand for suspense or action without thinking about the emotional ramifications for the people witnessing the violence. There’s been a lot of talk recently about this phenomenon in big summer action movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, both of which end with large-scale disaster setpieces that claim countless lives offscreen without ever dealing with the consequences of such mass murder. In the TV realm, much of the conversation has been centered around the booming genre of serial-killer shows, among them veterans like Dexter and Criminal Minds as well as newcomers like The Following and Bates Motel. The question becomes: how many more times do we want to see a beheading or a stabbing on our television screens, especially when it’s just going to be used as the impetus for a tired detective plot?
(For those of you who haven’t seen this show yet – and given the low ratings, many of you fall into that camp – feel free to keep reading as long as you don’t mind reading a few brief plot details. I promise reading this review won’t spoil your enjoyment of the show in any way.)
On the surface, Hannibal appears to fall in the same traps as those shows. Each week, special FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) works with FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to trace a serial killer, usually coupled with gruesome imagery of the killer’s latest victim. The twist is that Will has a special mental condition that allows him to completely and totally empathize with the killer even if the killer has long since escaped, allowing the FBI to trace the killers with far greater efficiency and precision.
But Hannibal isn’t really about the procedural slog of watching horrifying murders and catching serial killers. Hannibal is about the effect that those serial killers have on the characters’ mental state, and by extension that of the audience. The killer in the first episode, single father Garrett Jacob Hobbes, haunts Will’s nightmares for the entire season, compounded by the fact that Hobbes’ daughter Abigail remains a presence in his life. Each week, Dancy’s Emmy-worthy performance grows more weary and cynical, his greasy hair sticking to his forehead for dear life. And each week, we see that the violence on this show isn’t merely a device to attract the audience’s attention and makes us go “Ooh! Aah! Look at all that blood!” Instead, the violence makes us think: what if I become desensitized the way that Will is afraid he might? At what point is this job too emotionally traumatizing for a mentally unstable man like Will to continue working? And, in a larger sense, how do I feel about the violence I absorb in my entertainment on a regular basis?
Guiding us along in our somewhat twisted study of Will’s mind is the show’s title character, none other than the serial killer of fictional legend, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Yes, it’s taken four paragraphs for me to mention the title character. Despite the title, this show isn’t directly about Hannibal, a smart choice on the part of creator Bryan Fuller. Instead, Lecter lurks on the edges of the show, planting falsehoods in the characters’ minds and luring them into a false sense of security. For the first few episodes of the season, the only hints we get of Lecter’s murderous affectations were in subtly clever and referential bits of dialogue (“I’d love to have you for dinner,” Hannibal purrs) and the occasional odd bit of cuisine (hmmm, those fleshy tubes look awfully similar to lungs…). When we finally learn what we’ve already known from the character’s pre-Hannibal pop culture history, the revelation is shocking not because it’s gory and directed with a jolt, but because Mads Mikkelsen’s expertly crafted performance has so fully masked the character’s depraved tendencies under a veil of dry wit and pinched psychological observation.
(Side note: If NBC cancels Hannibal after next season, Mikkelsen should get in contact with the Food Network. Using only his voice, that man can turn a gourmet dish into a well-rounded emotional experience.)
Beyond the appealing subtlety and quiet innovation of the narrative and themes, Hannibal excels on a technical level. David Slade lent his impeccable directorial vision to the pilot, finale and several episodes in between. (Slade also directed the extraordinary pilot for last season’s Awake and the “best” of the Twilight movies, Eclipse.) Other episode directors included Battlestar Galactica veteran Michael Rymer and, in a particularly impressive coup, acclaimed cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who worked on such visual masterworks as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This rotating cavalry of directors lent a dreamlike beauty and devastating menace to the proceedings, rendering even the grossest of images with a tinge of ironic beauty. In an interview with Alan Sepinwall, Fuller said he wanted to lend a “purple operatic quality” to the violent imagery in order to unequivocally separate it from any sort of a realism, a wise choice and thematically consistent with the idea of exploring our relationship to violence without mimicking real-life horrors. Images like a totem pole constructed out of mutilated bodies and a man whose exposed vocal cords had been lashed into violin strings carried the requisite shock value, but they never let you forget that there were people behind the devastation.
I also love that Hannibal took chances most network shows would never dream of, and I’m not just talking about the envelope-pushing imagery. The show isn’t afraid to lapse into tense silence for five minutes at a time, a move that suggests confidence on the part of the creative team. At the same time, Hannibal can be unusually talky for a “serial-killer drama,” with lengthy scenes devoted to frank discussions of the characters’ mental states and the ethics of psychological study. And, as mentioned, the procedural elements often gives way to more serialized arcs in unexpected ways, as with the recurring character played by Eddie Izzard.
On the negative side, the show could have probably used a few more episodes in its first season, although of course that’s a network issue rather than a creative one. Several subplots feel abrupt or underdeveloped, particularly a lovely but slight romance between Will and the psychiatrist Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas, terrific but underused) and an ongoing intrigue surrounding the squirrelly blogger Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki). And I’m still curious about the show’s fourth episode, which NBC removed from the schedule at Fuller’s request, later allowing the serialized dialogue to find its way online in a series of webisodes. In the Sepinwall interview, Fuller said that in retrospect he probably could have let the episode (in which Molly Shannon played a serial killer who forced young children to kill each other) air without major ramifications, but he felt that in the wake of several horrifying national tragedies involving violence against children, the episode might hit too close to home for some viewers.
Whether he was overthinking the ramifications of this episode given the rather disturbing nature of the entire series, I admire Fuller’s thoughtful decision, and it points to the strengths that made the show an unexpected midseason treasure. Last night’s finale ends on a suitably ambiguous and quiet note, eschewing a noisy cliffhanger or violent confrontation for an ominous smile and a loaded greeting in a lonely jail cell. This first season is a thrilling accomplishment, and I’m anticipating the second season almost as much as Hannibal Lecter anticipates watching his dinner guests turn into unwitting cannibals.
*Molly Eichel has reviewed each episode at the AV Club this season.
*Todd VanDerWerff and Libby Hill discussed the show in an episode of their podcast TV on the Internet.
*Alan Sepinwall interviewed Fuller in two parts. I linked to the first part above. The second part is here.