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TV Review: ‘Hannibal’

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NBC’s new series Hannibal just wrapped its debut season June 30, and has been renewed for a second “mini” season of 13 episodes. The series stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, the FBI profiler out of Robert Harris’ novel Red Dragon — the man who caught Hannibal Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen). Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 3.57.32 PM

Although Lecter, playing a far more cooly sinister psychotic than the film version, is certainly at the heart of the story, the series is really, fundamentally, about the emotionally fragile FBI profiler (Graham) who has the unique ability to get into the mind of serial killers. The problem is that Graham, who at the series start teaches at the academy, has not been able to pass the psych evaluation needed to get him the “Special Agent” designation and allow him into the field. However, consultant to the FBI Dr. Hannibal Lecter gives Graham the requisite OK and out he goes, getting into the heads of serial killers.

It is like putting a lamb into the lion’s den (or a deer in the gun sight of a marksman). And I mean that both by putting him in the field and by putting him under the “unofficial” psychiatric care of Dr. Lecter. As the season progresses, Will becomes more and more unstable as they track down killers, even as one in particular, a copycat of the so-called Chesapeake Ripper eludes him. This killer, we know by the end of the first episode, is Lecter, and much of the season involves Lecter’s careful and subtle manipulation of Will and those around him. The cushion of stability that only barely keeps Will’s mental moorings anchored in its sand foundations is but an illusion that begins to crumble as season one continues in what is essentially a prequel filmed novel to Red Dragon.

I have always been intrigued by a certain type of fictional hero: broken but perceptive, sensitive, tormented. Hyper-intelligent they are able to piece together the most difficult of puzzles from fragile fragments so small as to be indiscernible to the mere mortals amongst us. Often these guys walk the fine line of social acceptability (and sanity). Fans often like to suggest Aspergers or some other form of mild autism; others suggest various things other personality disorders described in psychiatry’s bible, the DSM IV. Profiler/psychologist Tony Hill in the BBC Wire in the Blood series (and Val McDermid’s novel series) was a diagnosed “Aspy.”

In a way, Graham reminds me of The X-Files Fox Mulder. Not necessarily the Mulder of the X-Files as we knew him, but as I might (and many, many fanfiction writers did) imagine him before he took on the X-Files. Mulder, too, was a tortured soul, perceptive and cursed with a vivid memory and ability to take deductive leaps that would defy conventional wisdom. It was this ability and not his interest in the paranormal that earned him the moniker “Spooky” Mulder at the FBI.

There are currently several series on primetime television featuring this sort of perceptive-cracked-genius hero, including TNT’s Perception starring Eric McCormack, and Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller (of course Sherlock Holmes is the granddaddy of the this particular archetype). One of the things Hannibal has going for it the other two do not is the ability to really (I mean, really) integrate the character study of Will Graham (and of Hannibal Lecter) into the procedural so well as to make them seamless.

Elementary does this sometimes, and when it does it, it does it very, very well (the episode “M,” for example did it superbly). Perception, not so much, and that is less the fault of McCormack, and more the fault of the risk-avoidance of the producers and writers. What a fabulous idea to have a paranoid schizophrenic neuropsychaitrist criminal profiler as a lead character. But it’s too often a wasted opportunity.

Hannibal works beautifully as a character study alone, especially the way he is portrayed by the British Dancy. Graham is a man whose senses will not let him rest. He feels everything — a pure empath. He feels the screams on the air, and absorbs them into the fiber of his being. It is a mind-shattering existence, and likely pure terror for a man whose job it is to catch serial killers. But Graham also suffers losses of time; he has hallucinations, perhaps delusions. He lives on a nexus between reality and an imagination so vivid he’s never sure which side he’s on. But is his problem psychological or physical? Dancy infuses Graham from the start with edginess and self-doubt, building upon that as the season goes on and Will goes deeper an deeper into the case and into himself. It is a brave performance.

Mikkelsen is simply chilling as Lecter, far, far more chilling than Anthony Hopkins ever was in Silence of the Lambs or The Red Dragon. That Mikkelsen comes across as reassuring and benevolent, open and generous towards both Will and his boss Jack (the excellent Laurence Fishburne) makes him all the more creepy as he weaves his black widow’s web that we know will inevitably try to trap the rudderless Will Graham. That we know it’s coming increases the tension even more. Mikkelsen plays him with such calm; he barely moves a muscle and he never loses his cool. Will, by contrast is a bundle of emotion: fear, anxiety, depression, empathy — he takes it all in, and reflects none of it back.

I must make special mention of the wonderful Laurence Fishburne in the role of Will’s FBI boss Jack Crawford. Fishburne carries the role with intensity and sensitivity, driven by a terrible mistake that had gotten another FBI agent presumably killed in the field. Although he wishes not to make the same mistake with Will, he feels compelled to keep using his broken  agent. There is no one around who can catch the killer like he can.

I look forward to more of Hannibal. It will return, but not before early 2014. In the meantime, I have learned that the Hannibal gang will be a this year’s San Diego Comic-Con doing a panel Thursday night July 17. I hope to get in a word or two or a brief interview afterwards with the series stars and creators. I shall, of course, report back with daily reports on Hannibal and everything else at this year’s Comic-Con. So, stay tuned!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.