When it was first announced that a TV series was in development based around Hannibal Lecter and the other characters from Thomas Harris Red Dragon, there was a lot of harrumphing that it was a travesty and doomed to failure. However the show has surprised many by being very good. It also makes quite a lot of smart moves, not least that despite being named after Lecter, it doesn’t blow its load and become the cannibal freak show – indeed, it’s never even mentioned he is a cannibal, adding a frisson of excitement to the meals he likes to cook for people.
Instead the focus is on Will Graham. In Thomas’ Red Dragon we meet Graham after he’s left the bureau, due to the fact he was almost killed trying to capture Lecter, a man he’d worked alongside without realising he was a serial killer. Hannibal takes us back to those early days when they first met. Graham (as played by Hugh Dancy) is a rather damaged individual with a singular talent for getting into the minds of killers – however this has left him confused, fragmented and in danger of losing himself.
Nevertheless, the FBI’s Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) knows he can help catch murderers and so despite Will’s fragile state, pulls him into investigations. Much of this first season deals with the fall-out for Graham of him having to shoot a serial murderer, which sends him right to the edge, complete with visions and blackouts, leading some to wonder if he’s going insane or whether he has some sort of illness. To help deal with things, Will starts to meet Hannibal Lecter.
Initially having a shrink seems good for Graham, but as we learn more about Hannibal and how he operates – not least that he pre-warned the killer that Graham ended up shooting – his dangerous side becomes increasingly apparent. To Hannibal, everything is like a chess game, where the skill is to move the pieces to where he wants them and watch what happens, which may include being more harmful than helpful to Will. However by focussing on Graham it allows Hannibal to be even more sinister. Indeed, it’s impressive that for a character where we know so much about what happens to him after he’s caught, the show still manages to make him completely mysterious.
This is helped by having the wonderful Mads Mikkelsen in the role, who’s unnervingly calm and calculated, so that while you know Hannibal’s mind is constantly working, it’s impossible to tell what he’s thinking. The rest of the cast is also superb, with Hugh Dancy putting in a particularly impressive performance as Will Graham.
They’ve certainly taken care with the series, giving it an impressively cinematic look and feel, to the point it’s impressive they managed to get each episode together on a TV schedule (and its mix of crisp, clinical cool and organic decay looks even better on Blu-ray, where the picture quality is pin-sharp). And those worried that Hannibal going to TV would completely sanitise the character and the feel of Harris’ books (and the previous movies) will be pleased to hear that the show includes some of the most gruesome and strange imagery ever to make it to US network TV.
I have to say, I went into Hannibal unconvinced about the entire idea of the show, but it won me over, managing to be police procedural, creepy thriller and psychological study, while retaining what was most important about Harris characters – not least that Hannibal is always the smartest, most inscrutable man in the room, and that he’s as intriguing as he is scary. It also makes Will Graham a more interesting character than you normally have at the centre of a crime show. I do wonder how they’ll be able to keep it going over coming seasons, as it’s difficult to see where Will can go, as he’s already right on the edge – although thankfully there’s plenty of room for Hannibal to do his thing. Hell, he hasn’t even met a census taker yet.
Unfortunately there aren’t too many special features, although what’s there is pretty good. The 13-episodes are great though, and well worth watching even if you don’t get much else.
Overall Verdict: A surprisingly good TV take on Hannibal Lecter, taking us back to his early days and making him as mysterious as ever, with Will Graham also turned into a rather fascinating character.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac