To answer your question: No. Television does not need another serial-killer drama. But who can resist Hannibal Lecter? Especially when the horror-pop icon has been reinvented in a cable-style drama so finely acted, visually scrumptious, and deliciously subversive. Set during the cannibal shrink’s pre-incarceration days, Hannibal distinguishes itself from The Following, Bates Motel, and American Horror Story by its distinctive storytelling voice, Bryan Fuller. The creator of Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies again tells the tale of an alienated individual with an extraordinary talent that feels like an affliction. He also tells a tale that really isn’t about Hannibal Lecter.
FBI special agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is capable of empathizing with murderers and vividly imagineering their crimes. Is Will a Natural Born CSI or a Natural Born Killer himself? Even he’s not sure. Dancy’s prickly performance hits the self-loathing hard, but to complex effect. He has zero tolerance for anyone dumb or glib about evil, such as true-crime blogger Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki), whose zeal for dirt is sociopathic. She’s the weak link on a show that desperately needs stronger female characters.
Will has a habit of getting “in too deep” while investigating murders, but Hannibal tweaks those cop-show clichés by giving him a boss (Laurence Fishburne) who’s not above exploiting Will’s gift for closing cases. His concerned friend, FBI psychologist Alana Bloom (Wonderfalls’ Caroline Dhavernas), tries to watch over him, but it’s Will’s bromance with a certain consulting psychiatrist that gives him the grounding he needs.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) mesmerizes as Lecter by doing deceptively little. His Hannibal, who may not yet be a killer, is serenely composed, his eyes devoid of crazy. In the same way that Lecter is clearly up to something, Mikkelsen is messing with us, as we scrutinize his poker face for monstrosity. His occasional small, coy smile is a proverbial wink to the camera. Creepy, too.
All of Hannibal is this impishly ironic, especially when its title character is anywhere near a kitchen: tenderizing a side of lung-shaped mystery meat, dining on saucy “loin” chops. Yet there’s meaningful subtext in the sly sensationalism. The pilot’s best scene comes when Lecter bonds with Will by bringing him homemade eggs and sausage and discussing his fascination with abomination. Hannibal takes our own fixation on psycho-pop and serves it back to us in a dish full of flavor.
Bon appétit, horror freaks. A–
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