The visual language of “Hannibal” has grown increasingly more abstract and dreamlike as the series has gone on. As the show and its central characters get ever closer to the iconic serial killer, the less their realities seem to be governed by basic laws of either narrative logic or physics. When you are in with Hannibal Lecter, you are in a waking nightmare, where everything seems like it should exist only in the darkest corners of imagination, but is instead somehow horrifyingly real.
It's a stylistic shift that's benefited the show, and also one that neatly captures the feeling of watching it and being aware that it airs on NBC (where the third season debuts tomorrow night at 10). Surely, the idea of a series this graphic and disgusting airing on a traditional broadcast network, with all the FCC regulations and Standards and Practices executives involved, must be a dream. Or maybe it's a prank, or a piece of guerrilla art, that got NBC to run a drama about a cannibal serial killer who at one point last season served a victim's own leg (beautifully cooked and presented!) to him, and that has featured ancillary killers who have turned their victims into mushrooms, beehives, and angels with flesh wings. And even if you leave the baroque gore aside, how is a show so obsessed with classical music, art and philosophy allowed on the network of “The Voice,” “Sunday Night Football” and the sturdy and straightforward “Chicago Fire” franchise?
Well, it is because “Hannibal” is only sort of an an NBC show. It's produced by Gaumont International, which has the rights to several of Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter novels – of which “Red Dragon” is the primary source for Bryan Fuller's adaptation here – and sells the show around the world, including to NBC. No one know the exact figure NBC pays for it, but it costs less than a standard drama – especially one with the ambitions and production values of this one – would for the network. And when the cost goes way down, so does the level of supervision, as we see here, as we see on FX with “Louie” and even as we saw in the last few seasons of “Friday Night Lights” on NBC, when DirecTV was picking up the tab, and certain storylines (like a teenage girl getting an abortion) were allowed that likely wouldn't have been under a traditional arrangement.
And this arrangement has allowed Fuller, director David Slade, and everyone else involved in “Hannibal” to make it as weird, specific, beautiful and disturbing as they want the series to be – or, really, how any kind of extended look at a character like Hannibal Lecter (played in hypnotic, understated fashion by Mads Mikkelsen) should be. There are certainly other ways to tell a Hannibal story, as we've seen over multiple films and books, but this kind of extended stay inside the mind of Dr. Lecter, as well as his nemesis Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, as coiled and tormented as ever), should feel this unsettling, and almost alien. (Discussing his preferred choice of meats with a victim, Hannibal says, “It's only cannibalism if we're equals.” The only human whom he seems to consider even close to his equal is Will Graham.)
The show often has the feel of science fiction, and not just because it seems impossible for any one man to physically accomplish some of the things Lecter does here, like slicing up a victim's body into sections, placing them in enlarged lucite slides and delivering them, undetected, to a public location to put them on display to taunt Will. Fuller once told me that he aspires to a more operatic quality for the murders and the way the victims' bodies are presented, because, “The more real the murder is, the less interested I am in seeing it.” Of the show's visual style, he recently told RogerEbert.com, “The first thing I tell any new director is 'You are making a pretentious art film.' This is not an episode of television.”
It's that level of pretension, as well as the show's ability to back it up with gorgeous direction, great performances and smart writing, that allows “Hannibal” to get away with being an Awesome Serial Killers Are Awesome show in a TV universe that has far too many of them(*). I ordinarily have no patience for this kind of show, but this series is so damn pretty, and smart, and plain good, that I not only make allowances for it, but frequently find myself questioning my feelings about cannibalism as I look at one of the sumptuous dishes Dr. Lecter has prepared from the organs of his victims.
(*) Fuller has also gone out of his way to avoid making the show's victims women, except in instances where there's a mixed-gender group of corpses, or where a woman has specifically been close to exposing Lecter's true nature to the world. Too many of these shows get off on the plight of the bound, gagged, and soon to be raped and/or tortured female victim, and Fuller has all but removed sexual violence from the equation. Though as he told EW in a recent interview on the subject, it will be a challenge when this season starts to incorporate “Red Dragon” villain Francis Dolarhyde (to be played by Richard Armitage from “The Hobbit”), since his crimes in the book have that component. Given the show's track record, I trust Fuller to find the proper approach.
Season 2 ended with Will, FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and psychiatrist Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) all confronting Hannibal in his Baltimore home, and being maimed or worse by him. It was the show's most nightmare-inducing episode yet, and one that sets up a bit of a clean break for season 3. The new year begins with an episode featuring only Mads Mikkelsen and Gillian Anderson (as Hannibal's former therapist and current traveling companion, Dr. Bedelia du Maurier) traveling through Paris and Florence (parts of the season were filmed on location in Europe), trying to build a new life and stay away from the many different forces (including characters from other Hannibal novels) looking to capture him. It allows Fuller (who co-wrote the premiere with Steve Lightfoot) to further indulge some of Hannibal's academic obsessions – there's a scene where he delivers a lecture on Dante, albeit in English, because doing the whole thing in Italian seems like it would be a bridge too far for NBC, even with this series. The premiere's also a great showcase for Mikkelsen and Anderson, who became a cast regular this season and plunges deep into the emotional life of a woman whose motives – she knows what Hannibal is, but is she a witting accomplice, or someone under his thrall the way Will and Abigail Hobbes have been at different times? – remain tantalizingly unclear.
Later episodes (I've seen the first three) bring Will back into the story and begin revealing what happened in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Lecter's home. They continue with the more elliptical style introduced midway through last year, which works to the show's advantage: the lines between reality, fantasy, and delusion are so effectively blurred that questions of whether the plots always make sense become largely irrelevant. “Hannibal” is about the experience, not about the story, which most of us already know the broad strokes of. The second episode features perhaps the single most disturbing image in the show's history, and when the scene featuring it was over, I didn't know whether to laugh, applaud, or schedule a therapy appointment.
“Hannibal” is one of the very best shows on television. But it's also so extreme in depicting violence and its aftermath – even in this heightened fashion, and often with a dry, absurdist sense of humor about it – that it's not one I would insist every serious TV fan must watch. It will give you nightmares, no doubt about it. But for me, the bad dreams are worth it for the chance to join Will Graham and Jack Crawford as they try to put an end to the ongoing one being conjured by Hannibal the Cannibal.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
The first two seasons of “Hannibal” are streaming on Amazon Prime, and no, you don't want to try jumping in at this point without going back to the beginning.