If you’re like me, and I’m going to assume you are, then you weren’t excited when you heard about Hannibal. You wondered how many more properties from your youth would be plundered for profit and it made you unhappy. Why? Because how old are you getting if they’re rebooting the Silence of the Lambs? Wasn’t that out maybe ten years back? No. It came out a long time ago. In fact, that crappy sequel with Julianne Moore was actually more than ten years ago. You’re getting old. Actually, as the kids say these days: PLOT TWIST! The show is actually good! Holy shit! You didn’t see that coming, did you?
Don’t believe me? I’ve got ten reasons why you should dig it…
1. Will Graham is a Real Nerd Hero!
Will Graham is (arguably) the protagonist of Hannibal, a super-detective who specializes in serial murders, but he’s not a square-jawed badass type. No, he’s a guy who failed the psychological exam for field work and would probably be better off as a teacher for the FBI Academy. He wears glasses and is a sensitive type that spends his spare time fishing and taking care of stray dogs. Most nerd heroes talk about being nerds and super smart but then turn their super-intellect into things like bad-ass martial arts or thinking so fast you constantly ambush baddies. They also tend to be pretty good around people, which really isn’t my experience in honors classes or with gamers.
Nerds of the “super-smart yet somewhat autistic” type tend to be bad at things like eye contact. They also tend to develop nervous tics and generally be overloaded by contact with people. Watching Will in this show, I see things like this. He’s still an awesome detective but he’s an anti-Batman. We all love the Caped Crusader, but he is kind of super handsome, super rich, super badass, and super banging Catwoman. This is not the nerd life. Will, who probably has never had a girlfriend, is much closer. He’s actually burdened by his brain instead of being a superhero. I can imagine him being that guy at a game demo who’s scared to ask how to play. But when he overcomes his neuroses and self-doubt enough to takedown a badass serial killer, you want to shout YES!
2. Super Powers!
Will has a murderous psychic vision… I mean, analyzes the clues.
Will likes to say that his deductions are based on evidence, with logical leaps. In other words, he says he is like Sherlock. Sherlock can look at a dog hair on your coat and declare that you are a widower because you pay too much attention to your fur-babies. In real life, this is basically cold reading and it is about as efficient as the situations you are dealing with are simplistic, so when I say this show involves super powers, I mean more than the normal TV magic or logic.
Will can step into a crime scene, almost literally. He imagines himself there and acts out the crime. At first you buy into him being super attentive to detail, but at later times he manages to pull out information that seems impossible, such as realizing the exact identity of a murderer with a cursory examination of a body (see above). He also talks to a dead murderer and seems to get information that he would not have access to without actually being able to talk to a dead person. He remembers things that didn’t happen to him with such overwhelming clarity that he forgets that the memories aren’t his. This is in addition to the just plain weird stuff, like Hannibal being able to smell cancer. I have no explanation for that one other than him apparently having the nose of Scooby Doo.
3. The Villains!
Will on the trail of the “angel” making killer. Probably NSFW? Certainly not for the squeamish.
Hannibal is a show about serial murderers. Not just people who kill a series of people in tidy ways like poison or suffocation. Things get pretty gruesome, enough so that I was surprised when I realized it was a NBC show. People are chopped up, mutilated, and (of course) eaten. This is a prequel to all those movies with Hannibal already being in a cell (twenty year-old spoiler alert), and it turns out he’s sort of a respectable guy right now. In fact, they play it pretty straight. So straight that halfway through season one I was starting to wonder if this was a prequel in the sense of Hannibal actually being on the side of the angels when things started. Maybe this show was his Phantom Menace and he was Jake Lloyd, except that this show didn’t suck.
I was wrong. I mean, I was very wrong. Hannibal turns out to be the absolute worst of all of them, an uber-killer who trades out serial killer identities and shticks as the concept strikes him. But before you figure that out, you meet a whole bunch of other murderers that actually have understandable motivations, as that’s mainly the point of the show. Will gets in their heads and so do you. Some of these killers are misunderstood, some are proud of themselves, some like to partially skin people while they’re still alive and make them into “angels” with wings made of skin. They’re all creepy as hell if not monsters in human flesh, like Dan Didio (Seriously. Who obsesses over killing Nightwing? BITE ME DIDIO!)
4. The Characters Are Smart!
Brains. Delicious Brains.
Hannibal is almost completely lacking in dumb jocks and stubborn strongmen. When you think about it, our heroes and villains are often pretty anti-intellectual. Thor and Superman beat up Loki and Lex Luthor because they punch real well, not because they’re smart. Not only are the main characters of Hannibal a psychiatrist and an FBI profiler, but the supporting cast is all fairly brilliant. Will has a small team of CSI-types who are quite brilliant in their own anal-retentive way. They actually make useful suggestions and do not seem in any way to be there just to make Will look smart. They also feature Scott Thompson, who I have not been seeing nearly regularly enough since his Kids in the Hall days.
The closest thing to a stereotypical alpha male on the show is Jack. Thing is, Jack is a bit pudgy and actually is quite smart in his own right. He’s an active crime fighter instead of a moronic bureaucrat. In fact, just when you start to get irritated with him, you find out he has a sick wife and is just trying to keep his mind off of her while keeping his work going forward. Will’s on-again and off-again love interest is another psychiatrist; notably the only one of the whole group who actually seems to remember the human victims and casualties that pile up during the episodes. She’s pretty gorgeous, but also smart and surprisingly approachable (Call me!).
5. Slasher Cage Matches!
There can only be ONE… awesome serial killer in this show.
In the real world, I don’t think serial killers have much to do with each other. There are certainly a few exceptions, but it’s not like they all know each other, Sandman’s “Cereal Convention” notwithstanding. Things are a little different in Hannibal. The writers are tasked with coming up with a different killer for most episodes and they certainly could have treated each as an isolated incident. It would have been a little far-fetched but still fundamentally plausible as the FBI does tend to travel all around the country. One episode could be in Washington, another in Florida, another in Guam or some other fake state like “West” Virginia.
They didn’t go that way. Instead, they decided to embrace the “large number of serial killers in a small area” plot and have killers envy each other, imitate each other, kill in specific ways to send messages to each other… all sorts of strange variations. My favorite, though, has to be the “slasher cage match”. Basically Hannibal meets another serial killer and that killer immediately (on sight no less) develops a minor obsession with Hannibal. He manages to stalk his way to a dinner invite, at which point it only takes a few minutes before they are both talking about serial murder. They both share a joke about how they had meant to kill each other and part a bit awkwardly. But, from there, it’s only a short countdown before they confront each other and feel compelled to fight to the death. Why? I really have no idea. But I think it would be pretty awesome to live in a world full of murderous madmen who are inexorably drawn together with the only outcome being A FIGHT TO THE DEATH!
As long as they do that before they get to me, I mean.
6. The Cast!
You will never look at Eddie Izzard the same way again.
If you made a TV show and you could cast anyone you wanted, I imagine you could do a lot worse than Hannibal did. You have a Bond villain playing Hannibal, and I know we all love Sir Anthony Hopkins, but Mads Mikkelsen is great, too. He has a sophisticated air in his old-fashioned suits and slightly-off appearance that somehow makes him both extremely creepy and yet charming enough that you understand him getting away with it. Laurence Fishburne is a little startling at first if you still think of him as Morpheus, as the years have not been kind, but he does seem to be in much better shape than he was in for Man of Steel. He also plays a surprisingly nuanced character, someone who makes unpopular decisions but still obviously cares about the people under his command.
The main point of excitement, though, is the minor characters. I love Eddie Izzard. He’s definitely in my top ten people I’d most like to spend an afternoon or an evening with. He’s brilliant, hilarious and an executive transvestite. Yet he’s also peaceful and thoughtful. None of this really adds up to him doing an awesome job as a serial killer trying to find his way in the world after questionable psychotherapy. Surprisingly, it worked! Eddie Izzard is terrifying in this show, despite still being hilarious. Agent Scully also has a guest spot, serving as Hannibal’s therapist in a role that hasn’t completely paid off but is skin-crawlingly creepy in subtle ways. She also looks gorgeous despite the number of years it’s been since the X-Files. All that and Zoe from Firefly is there, too, in a small but important part that she brings a lot of gravitas to. It’s like being at a convention, without long lines and $20 autographs!
7. Even the Visuals Are Clever!
Mushrooms tend to be an ongoing theme. I’m just saying.
Will Graham undergoes a bit of a downward spiral in season one, which is to say that both Will and the audience think he’s gone completely fucking nuts and probably eats people. This is despite you both knowing that, no, he really doesn’t do that. Or does he? The show so effectively switches back from Will’s increasingly clouded perceptions to what is actually happening that you really begin to wonder if Will is following things at all. He starts losing time at one point, and Memento-style cuts drive the point home. Will can wake up suddenly miles from home, walking steadily down the highway with no idea why. He can draw something and see a perfect circle, but suddenly the camera cuts and we see something drawn by a second grader. It really puts everything he sees in doubt.
It’s not just Will, either. One of the more interesting parts of the Hannibal world is how strange normal things can look. When Hannibal boils a hallucinogenic tea for a young protege, you’re suspicious in the first place because the establishing shot of the tea is so bizarre. You start with a disorienting close-up of the boiling ingredients and then you find out the whole thing is upside down. Sort of a cheap gimmick in some ways, but it lets you know there is something very wrong with the tea and that something is about to get very weird. It also provides a smooth transition to the “I am on special tea vision” scenes that follow soon after. Plus, there are no Alice in Wonderland references, which I for one appreciate. We all love Alice, but come on everybody. Other people wrote hallucinogenic stuff, too.
8. There Is a Plan!
Hannibal is just a nice guy doing Will Graham a favor.
Maybe I’m still bitter after slogging through Lost and Battlestar Galactica, only to be shit upon by the writers. It was two different kinds of shitting to be fair. Battlestar hammered all living plot-points with instant resolutions (all the extra messiah babies died and we’ve been in the Opera House the whole time! That was totally planned!). Lost just gave up then showed us good guy in white, a bad guy in black and a magic pit. One is less enraging than the other, but they both show something that is the bane of geek entertainment everywhere; writers seeding plots and weird bits of information that never, ever go anywhere. It’s becoming endemic, to the point that Sherlock, which is based on a property that tended to explain everything, just refused to explain the central mystery at the heart of the season-ender.
Hannibal does not do this. Every weird aside and strange thing that doesn’t fit in is eventually tied together. For instance, at one point Hannibal visits Will’s house and feeds his dogs with homemade (people) sausage. He fiddles around and looks at Will’s stuff and looks in his sock drawer. Then he does something odd with something on a table. If you are eagle-eyed enough or watching on Amazon so you can rewind a little, you realize it’s a fishing lure. Why is Hannibal in Will’s house and screwing around with his fishing stuff? Later Will thanks Hannibal for taking care of his dogs and you think that’s the end of it. Except at the end of the season, Jack mentions it again. And then you understand that it was the culmination of a very long-term plan. And, if you’re me, you fall out of your seat.
9. The Humor! The Horror!
The Hannibal marketing team is also in on the joke.
Hannibal is a cannibal. Get it? It rhymes. That really isn’t that funny. But Hannibal himself is. In fact, he seems to have invented a whole genre of wordplay. I will dub this genre “cannibal jokes.” As I said before, it isn’t completely clear what Hannibal’s deal is at first or if he’s already a serial killer. You start to figure it out, though, when Hannibal starts having people over for dinner. They’re eating food, and you start to wonder if they’re eating people or not. It’s sort of funny, too, since he’s a cannibal and he’s having them for dinner. Then he says that it’s great to have friends for dinner. As he does he gets this weird little half smile and pretends to get absorbed in the wine. Yes, Hannibal is aware that you’re amused by this.
He keeps doing it for the whole show. It’s all about let me have you for dinner and this meat is so tender. At first its sly stuff such as the above mentioned dinner scene but then they abandon subtlety. Jack asks about the meat and Hannibal says they’re eating rabbit. Jack says he’s glad the rabbit wasn’t fast enough to get away. Hannibal chuckles and nods, as we cut to what Hannibal is remembering; a real live human, trapped in what looks like an animal trap, pleading and trying to get away while Hannibal inexorably approaches.
Hilarious, right? Well, no. It’s horrifying. Then again, it is pretty funny. Further muddying the waters is a scene where someone is a douche to Hannibal and Hannibal asks for his business card. Later, when looking through a recipe book and realizing he needs some juicy internal organs, Hannibal digs into his Rolodex and pulls out the man’s card. It is cannibalistic grocery shopping at its finest. It’s horror-larious!
10. It’s a Faithful Adaptation and Deserves Support!
Planning is important.
The show runner for Hannibal has a plan. Not a Steven Moffat plan that gets distracted from itself and is punctuated by deus ex machina plot twists and strangely interchangeable characters. No. This is actually a good plan. Hannibal has a few years of history behind it, and the show was intended to start as a prequel but more than that; it is intended to actually retell the canonical events at some point. Assuming it all comes to fruition (and it might if more people actually get them the ratings they need), we will see brand new versions of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs along with the sequels. There are even specific seasons mapped to specific remaps. This plan features a real lack of the usual “keep pushing out episodes until they stop us” that ruins a lot of shows. It also avoids the potential for a nigh-infinite prequel like Smallville.
More to the point, though, this is a show that actually respects and cares for its properties. This is getting pretty rare these days. Obviously, the people behind it are a bit too obsessed with a sometimes schlocky series of books about a cannibal psychologist. To which I say – these are my people! Also, it’s on a network channel, which usually is a kiss of death as far as quality goes. Could this show inspire non-exploitative nerd fare and networks actually competing with cable to make awesome shows? It’s a little far-fetched but by no means impossible. On a side note, it’s a good show, and the season one ending episode both made sense and was interesting, which is more than I can say about a lot of shows lately.
Previously by David N. Scott