The easiest way to appreciate the greatness of NBC's “Hannibal,” which begins its second season tomorrow night at 10, is to look at almost any of the other serial killer dramas that are littering primetime, from CBS' unkillable “Criminal Minds” to FOX's moronic “The Following” to A&E's upcoming Chloe Sevigny-waster “Those Who Kill.” There are too many of these shows, and almost all of them get off on the same fetishized scenes of bound-and-gagged victims whimpering while their leering abductor prepares to do something horrible to them, and almost all of them feature heroes who often seem too stupid to function, the better to allow their cackling opponents free rein.
HBO's brilliant “True Detective” has managed to sidestep most of these sick, tired landmines by focusing almost entirely on its two heroes and what motivates them, avoiding graphic imagery whenever possible, and leaving its killer as an unseen bogeyman until sometime late in the season.
As the latest story about the most famous, disgusting fictional serial killer of them all, “Hannibal” doesn't have that option. It has to walk right into that terrible minefield to show us the efforts of not only Hannibal the Cannibal, but many of the lesser killers he helps FBI profiler Will Graham hunt and capture. And yet it is so much richer and more thoughtful in both style and substance that it transcends its genre and exposes those other shows as the exploitation garbage that they are.
Adapted from a few passages of Thomas Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel, “Red Dragon,” by writer Bryan Fuller, with a stunning visual style crafted by director David Slade, “Hannibal” is unapologetically graphic nightmare fuel, but presented in such an imaginative way that it almost plays like science fiction. When I spoke with Fuller at the end of the show's low-rated first season(*), he said that with each killer and each crime scene, he aimed for the same “larger-than-life, operatic quality” he found in Harris' books, because real life has too much depressing violence in it, and thus, “the more real the murder is, the less I'm interested in it.”
(*) Its ratings compared to “Criminal Minds” or “The Follow” suggest, unfortunately, that there remains a robust public appetite for the trashy version of this kind of story.
So in season 1, we got one killer who used his victims' bodies to grow mushrooms, and another who turned them into angels with wings made of flesh – grisly images that at the same time felt so far removed from reality that they seemed less to be crimes than twisted works of art. It's strange to use the word “beautiful” to describe a show about a cannibal serial killer, and yet “Hannibal” is overflowing with dark beauty. So much thought and care is put into every image, every sound, every single element of the show that you may be startled by how pretty you find it all. Even something as familiar as a cotton swab taking a DNA sample from a human mouth looks like something that could be displayed in a museum. The presentation of Dr. Lecter's food alone is so mouth-watering that it has made me question exactly where I stand on the cannibalism question.
Beyond that, it remains remarkable how Fuller managed to pare away all the baggage Lecter and company have acquired over the decades, through both the various Lecter movies and their many imitators, to get to a dangerous, exciting core. Mads Mikkelsen is an understated, hypnotic Hannibal, absolutely believable as the supervillain the bad doctor has to be for the story to work, yet hinting at unexpected vulnerabilities in the character. (Lecter does terrible things to Will for his own convenience, but there's genuine sadness in his eyes as he talks about what's happened to his “friend.”) Hugh Dancy breathed new life into Will Graham, making this a rare Lecter story where his nemesis is at least as compelling, and Laurence Fishburne has been wonderful providing a more vulnerable, human take on Will's FBI boss, Jack Crawford.
At the end of the first season, Fuller pulled off a clever role reversal: Will is framed for Lecter's crimes, imprisoned in the familiar Baltimore psychiatric hospital where the movie versions of Will and Clarice Starling would visit him, while Lecter takes his place as Crawford's top profiler.
It was a memorable final image for the season, putting each man in the same hospital corridor where we always think of them, but on the wrong sides of the bars. But it also set up a situation that many a show would have difficulty sustaining without making its heroes look like complete incompetents. (Rest in peace, all you murdered FBI agents from “The Following” season 1.) Through the season's first four episodes, though, Fuller and company pull off the balancing act. Putting Will behind bars only sharpens his many edges, while having Lecter actively chasing other serial killers – often taking pointers from them, always with his own agenda – adds an unpredictable new layer to the show's standalone stories. (As happened last year, sometimes Crawford's team catches a killer in an hour, sometimes they need two, and sometimes there's no outside killer at all.) And the season's riveting opening sequence (which NBC has already put online to hype the premiere, though I would advise you watch it within the context of the episode itself) creates a new piece of tension that hangs over everything that follows.
The last thing television needs is more serial killer dramas. But when they're this well made, this smart and creative and unexpectedly funny? Then, yes, more “Hannibal,” please.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org