Since the ascendancy of The Sopranos, there have been plenty of articles wondering if network television would be able to keep up with cable. The premise being that, since cable stations have less (or in the case of HBO, no) restrictions on language or content, cable shows gave creators the freedom to tell whatever story they wanted, without limitations. Since then, shows like The Wire and Homeland have used that freedom to tell intense and compelling stories, and even on basic cable, The Shield, Justified, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead have been equally adept at using looser restrictions to create compelling drama. Now with Netflix and Amazon getting into content creation, it would be easy to dismiss network TV as the realm of reality shows and sitcoms, and stop looking there for compelling drama. But doing so would mean missing Hannibal, and that would be an enormous mistake.
Created by Bryan Fuller (who developed the very tonally different Pushing Daisies), Hannibal imagines the events which occurred before Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. Will Graham (masterfully played by Hugh Dancy) teaches behavioral science for the FBI at Quantico, and is tapped by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to work a disturbing serial killer case. Crawford wants Graham for his uncanny ability to empathize with killers, and to use that empathy to find the twisted logic in their pathology and track them down. Crawford’s concern for Graham’s stability and ability to function leads to hiring Hannibal Lecter to minister to Graham as he investigates.
Since Red Dragon debuted, Lecter has been a fascinating figure in American literature, and has even been elevated to a mythic level in our culture. Without having seen any of the movies (obviously) my son knows the name in the same way we know what happens in the Bates Motel shower even if we haven’t seen Psycho. Although Brian Cox did an excellent job portraying Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Anthony Hopkins made the character indelible over 20 years ago in Silence of the Lambs, for which he deservedly won an Academy Award. That high water mark the character was so impressive, even Hopkins has failed to match it in subsequent movies.
Enter Mads Mikkelsen, fresh off winning Best Actor at Cannes. The Danish actor best known as the villain Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, Mikkelsen is a sly, stunning performer, and in the episodes that have aired so far, he is creating a version of Lecter that nearly matches Hopkins, and at times threatens to overtake him. It’s a remarkable thing to sound and appear comforting and threatening at the same time. Each moment he’s on screen, there is a palpable sense of danger, and Mikkelsen and the producers know enough to tease those moments out to the detriment of our nerves.
It’s in that deliberate pacing where the show finds a way to stand toe to toe with the other excellent dramas on TV today. Fuller and his team understand that holding the audience in suspense is just as powerful as shocking them, and that the more you build that suspense, the easier it becomes to make them jump. They also know viewers are keenly aware of whom Lecter is and what he is capable of, and use that to unsettle their audience. Elegant plates of food become sinister, as we wonder if that loin he’s serving is truly pork. Graham’s struggle to hold on to his sanity so desperately he’ll embrace someone like Lecter could be played for tragedy, but for now establishes incredible tension between the two actors. And Fishburne is a huge asset as Crawford. Given that we know how dangerous Hannibal is, it would be easy to see Crawford as a fool for bringing such a wolf into his flock. A less talented performer would make him look fatuous, but Fishburne conveys how Jack Crawford’s dedication to catching predators sometimes blinds him.
Also to the credit of the writers and directors, they so far have not put either Graham or Crawford in a position where we’re left wondering how they can’t realize who Lecter truly is. We know he’s a monster because of our familiarity with the character, but they have no reason to doubt he’s anything other than a brilliant doctor. If the show can continue to reveal Lecter’s horrific side without making the other characters look foolish, they’ll have gone a long way to making Hannibal great. For now, it’s absolutely a show I intend to follow week to week, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. The first episode is available for free on Amazon, it’s really worth watching.