January 20, 2018

NBC's Hannibal

Posted June 22, 2014 by D. K. Holm

Hannibal recently completed its second of two 13-episode seasons, airing on NBC Friday nights, with a third season slated for next year. Fridays and Saturdays are currently considered dead zones for network television, although all of network TV is probably deader than it was in the 1960s, when 40 million people could tune into a single program. These days, three million is considered a coup. Still, NBC has been fighting the tide with such offbeat projects as Grimm and, this fall Constantine, airing on those nights normally reserved for repeats from earlier in the week.

Run by Bryan Fuller (of the well-regarded Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me), Hannibal is the latest death-obsessed entry from this long-time yet still-youngish writer. As a “prequel” to the series of books by Thomas Harris about serial killer Hannibal Lecter and the numerous films and remakes made from them, it is also the latest expression of the interesting and – to some – disturbing cultural obsession with the confident, competent killer. Now 74, Mr. Harris began as a police beat reporter in his college town, then moved to the Associated Press. He published his first novel Black Sunday in 1975, which was made into a movie not long after. Unfortunately the film was an expensive bomb and helped tear down the Mann theater chain.(1) His four other novels chart the rise of the Hannibal character: Red Dragon (1981), in which Lecter is a minor character, an imprisoned serial killer consulted (unnecessarily?) by FBI profiler Will Graham about an active case; The Silence of the Lambs (1988) which repeats the same deal – prison, consultation, this time by FBI candidate Clarice Starling  – but with Lecter given more action and an escape from confinement; Hannibal (1999), which completes the story arc of Lecter and Starling; and, eight years ago, Hannibal Rising (2006), a prequel that gives the backstory only alluded to in the other books of Lecter’s past in Europe during WWII and his later medical career and revenge serial slaughtering. Mr. Harris was only responding to the marketing gods by including the villain’s name in the later titles, but perhaps he was also responding to some inner zeitgeist antenna or personal interest by switching his allegiance from the police to their prey.

In Mr. Fuller’s program (2) we are back at the beginning. The contents of the series are a slow fleshing out of the implied and literal pre-story and early-in-the-novel events of Red Dragon, but with some post novel events tossed in from later novels that the De Laurentiis company also owns, and with variations added to expand different facets of the books and movies. Corrections, if you will, to the canon. Stuff Mr. Harris might have thought of himself. (3) Most important, the show revels in the complete triumph of focused evil over self-doubting good, as this season’s finale indicates.

Hannibal the character is a conflation of two ends of the American spectrum, or a mix of European and American attitudes. At the higher end, Hannibal is a connoisseur of classical music, literature, fine dining (the episodes take their titles from elaborate dishes). He is also a cannibal. Many of his dinner guests are unwitting flesh eaters. As a killer, he is cunning, fast, strong, prepared, and has a knack – as most movie serial killers do – of out-thinking, or anticipating his opponents. On the haute scale Hannibal is offended by bad manners and sloppy behavior. En bas, he thinks nothing of interfering in criminal investigations, private lives, physical bodies. He just wants to coldly watch what happens, see how people react.

It took a long time in the first season to confirm that Hannibal really was the serial killer the images and editing kept hinting that he was; and in the second season, everyone else around him either vehemently defended him against accusations of being – or attacked him literally or figuratively –  the Chesapeake Ripper, making his game a little harder but much more fun to play.

The previous Fuller programs I’ve seen have had high production standards, and Hannibal continues this tradition with some of the most striking acting, images, and sound on network television. It’s probably becoming trite to say that the series applies premium TV standards to what on prime time is usually formulaic, rushed, and programatic, the higher Mad Libs. Hannibal has its standard, repeated images, such as the speeded up transitional shots of Hannibal’s office-house with its doom-laden weather. But in general Hannibal is shot “dark” and moody, with Thomas Eakins-style lighting in the manner of the late Gordon Willis.(4) The photography is sharp and well-composed, but also often achieves the high definition abstractness of a Lars von Trier film. The sound production is also eerie, a pattern of Japanese-style percussion and electronic instruments and sound effects, which contributes to the rainy-day-unease of the series.(5) Most important of course are the stories themselves, or continuing story, which comprises an elaborate chess game between Hannibal, Will Graham, Graham’s boss Jack Crawford, and other shrinks, collaborators, scientists, MDs, and criminals.

Like the show itself, the acting is hushed, with UK actor Hugh Dancy as Graham, collecting stray does, as does his counterpart in the novel, that are louder than he is, Laurence Fishburne as his boss Jack Crawford, and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, also whispering to his auditors with the added sophistication of a European accent and the impediment provided by an overbite. Like a chess game – or a professional wrestling match – Hannibal can go slow then suddenly take off for a few seconds of extreme violence rendered more shocking. This is also one of the most blood soaked shows on TV, and the competition is already tough from Criminal Minds and CSI. 

It’s hard to imagine anyone liking  Hannibal the character in the conventional sense. Rather, he would be the repository of fantasies about intelligence and power for people at odds with society or who like to épater the bourgeoisie. Sociologically, Hannibal is a manifestation of the nightmare of the helping sciences. As a shrink, he has taken his skill and empathy, plus the knowledge of about 100 years of psychological research and and probably demographic studies and turned it against the human race for his own amusement and exercise of power. His advice at least in Hannibal is never Hannibullshit. His insights ring true even as he is laying the groundwork for some later crisis that the analysand will confront. And in fact the real life model for Hannibal, at least according to Wikipedia, aside from the usual Geins and Bundys was a doctor, a certain Alfredo Ballí Treviño, scion of an upper-class Monterrey clan whom Harris interviewed while the doc was in jail for murdering a friend and who was suspected of serial killings targeting hitchhikers from the late ’50s to early ’60s. Hannibal is the black image of the nanny state as sleeper cell, awaiting the chance to lay waste to the naive and needy.

1. For residents of Portland, Oregon, that included the Hollywood Theater, the Guild, and the Fox, the last two now gone.

2. Which exists thanks to a loophole in the purchase of the books by the late Dino De Laurentiis back when his company made Red Dragon as Manhunter. 

3. As far as I know Mr. Harris has not commented publicly on the show.

4. James Hawkinson and Karim Hussain have done the honors.

5. Michael Perfittm  Music Engineer, Music Mixer, Score Mixer, Score Engineer, and Brian Reitzell, Music Supervisor, along with music editors Joe Mancuso and Lee Scott, are the central figures here.