[Over the past year, Film Dispenser has provided recurring in-depth analysis of television series like The Killing, True Detective, Justified, Homeland, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. With so many new platforms offering original content (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) in addition to the networks we have already come to rely upon for quality programming (HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX), Film Dispenser has created a new column called Pass the Remote that will appear several times a month to provide reviews and analysis of television series that we will not be following on a week-to-week basis. Our goal is to help you make more efficient use of your viewing time. Let us watch the bad shows so that you don’t have to and allow us to pass along some suggestions for content we think you will enjoy.]
When Hannibal premiered on April 4, 2013, I couldn’t think of a show that was less necessary. After four novels by Thomas Harris and five film adaptations, that particular crime mythology had run its creative course in my estimation. The big screen had given us two Hannibal Lecters (Bryan Cox and Anthony Hopkins) and two Clarice Starlings (Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore) that had been brought to life by five different directors, a few who are masters of the craft (Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme and Ridley Scott). Hannibal and the gang had a good run and captured pop culture for far more than their fifteen minutes of fame. Let’s give it a rest and find some new sources of inspiration.
Then I watched the pilot. It had motion picture quality production values. The performances were controlled, sly, playing the material more for the psychological mind games it offered than the sensationalism of the gore and cannibalism. Though the violence was mostly committed off-screen, the results of the carnage were shown in the unflinching detail we usually see on HBO and Showtime, not NBC. It was clear Hannibal would not be a sanitized, family-friendly version of Thomas Harris’ vision. When Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) entered the restroom in their headquarters building, and it was an exact replica of the men’s room in The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, I was firmly in the grasp of Hannibal’s creative mojo.
Mads Mikkelsen is nothing short of mesmerizing as the title character. He eschews the hammy, scenery-chewing approach that won Sir Anthony Hopkins a Best Actor Oscar in 1992 for Silence of the Lambs. Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the mad psychiatrist is more controlled, giving him an air of refinement mixed with menace. He wears handmade European suits and has a gourmet kitchen that would make a famous chef jealous, but he also dons suits made of plastic to avoid leaving forensic evidence when he puts his knives to other uses. When Hannibal speaks with someone, he isn’t so much looking at them as he is studying them. The Danish actor has tapped into the lizard brain of the psychopath, and the audience can see glimpses of his contained elation at manipulating the events unfolding around him. It’s a performance of nuance where every glance and gesture hints at the character’s thoughts and subsequent actions.
Hugh Dancy is equally compelling as FBI profiler Will Graham. With his slight build and quiet academic demeanor, Will doesn’t seem ready to combat Hannibal’s manipulation and aggression. But, the premiere episode of Season 2 aside, Hannibal is not a show about hand-to-hand combat and shootouts. It’s about matching wits with evil and outthinking your opponent, and Hannibal rightly sees Will as the dangerous intellect he is. Dancy does an exemplary job of showing the impact that Will’s ability as an investigator has on Will the man. There is a price to be paid for spending time in the darkness and that toll is written all over Hugh Dancy’s face.
The behind-the-scenes MVP is writer Bryan Fuller (Star Trek: Voyager, Heroes, Pushing Daisies). Hannibal offers a labyrinthine plot that never sacrifices character for shock value. Will and our villain joust and maneuver with one another throughout the first season. Graham appears to be a willing participant in FBI-ordered counseling sessions with Lecter, but he uses the counseling for access to the psychiatrist who he begins to suspect is the legendary Chesapeake Ripper. Lecter enjoys toying with Will as he sets the profiler up to take the fall for his murders. By the end of Season 1, Fuller has ingeniously deconstructed the plot we expected, leaving Will under arrest for the murders Lecter committed. It’s the kind of twisting and twisted narrative that we rarely see on network television.
While kudos should go to NBC for bringing such a dark vision to network television, Hannibal may ultimately prove to be on the wrong network to survive. As one of the original Big Three broadcast networks, NBC shows are expected to produce ratings, even if the show has been relegated to the Friday night graveyard. The April 11th episode of Hannibal drew 2.4 million viewers, half the audience of its network lead-in, Grimm (4.8 million). The most recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones which airs on a pay subscription network on a Sunday night attracted an audience of 6.3 million, well over double the viewership of Hannibal.
With Hannibal’s current numbers, a third season looks doubtful. The NBC of the past would let its hits (ER, Frazier, Seinfeld, Friends, L.A. Law) pay for its prestige hours of television (Homicide: Life on the Street, Picket Fences, Boomtown). Those were the days when a Peabody Award still meant something in the world of broadcast television. What show won the Peabody Award in 2012? It was Southland, the cop drama that was cancelled by NBC after its first season and had to be picked up by TNT to find new life on the airwaves. Here’s hoping that NBC shows some patience when it comes to growing Hannibal’s audience. But, I have my doubts.
9 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.