Tuesday, June 25, 2013

'Hannibal' Season One (2013)

Starring Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen and Laurence Fishburne
Developed by Bryan Fuller
Based on characters created by Thomas Harris

Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is a gifted criminal profiler with a somewhat unique ability to put himself into the mindset of the nation's sickest serial killers. Recruited to assist on FBI investigations by Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), Graham goes to work on a case involving young women gone missing. The case becomes more intriguing to Graham when one of the girls is returned, and he suspects this is actually an apology from the killer.

Graham's friend, Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) is worried about Will's emotional state and requests that Jack bring aboard a psychotherapist named Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to assist. Soon after, another girl is found murdered and mounted on deer antlers. While the FBI initially assumes this is the killer's next stage of escalation, Graham believes that the case has garnered a copy-cat. Graham and Hannibal eventually track the killer, a man named Garrett Jacob Hobbs. When they arrive at Hobbs' home, they discover that someone has tipped Hobbs off, and he's already killed his wife and wounded his daughter Abigail (Kacey Rohl). Graham kills Hobbs to save Abigail, but that is only the beginning.

Tormented by what he's done, Graham begins to see Hannibal as a patient. And as their cases grow more and more grotesque, the specter of Garrett Jacob Hobbs grows like a cancer in Graham's mind. He begins to suffer delusions and lost time. But Hannibal, in the guise of a therapist, may not have Graham's best interests in mind.

Because Hannibal Lecter also has a secret: He himself is a serial killer, and a cannibal... working for the FBI.

I was hugely excited to check out Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal" when the series was first announced. I was a big fan of Fuller's work on "Star Trek" and the first season of NBC's "Heroes" before it went to crap, as well as his quirky grim-reaper dramedy "Dead Like Me." When the show finally came around, I was astonished to find it even better than I had thought. I worried that the show would be dumbed down for network television, essentially working Thomas Harris' infamous Hannibal Lecter character into some kind of lame "CSI" or "Criminal Minds" mold. Instead, Fuller and his team have crafted a dark, fascinating and dense prequel series.

While the middle of the season does fall somewhat into an episodic lull with Graham and Lecter solving a few unrelated crimes, each episode does push the overall narrative forward and those little bits do pay off in the end. Fuller and his writers have crafted a prequel that does what it should set out to do: Make you forget about the fact that you know what happens at the end. The episodes explore the genesis of the friendship between Graham and Lecter that will become increasingly tragic as the season goes on, and we uncover layer after layer of exactly what Lecter is doing behind Graham's back.

Much like the film series, Lecter sort of overshadows all the other characters on the show. The writers clearly enjoy writing for him, and the episodes often put special attention on what he's doing and who he's talking to. The episodes that dig deeper into Lecter's frame of mind and his lifestyle are some of the season's highlights - especially one in which we learn specifically how Lecter likes to put on a dinner party. The show uses Lecter's cannibalism like the most subtle punch to the gut you can imagine, with dialogue full of incredible innuendo. There are a few times when you realize it's not important what Lecter is serving... but who.

The cast is mostly excellent. Mads Mikkelsen is amazing as Lecter, intelligent and mysterious and dangerous. Hugh Dancy does some great work playing Graham's descent into madness, getting to spend a lot of time twitching and being confused and frightened about his state of mind. Additionally, this version of Graham is described as being mildly autistic, and Dancy spends a lot of time avoiding eye contact with those around him, and finds more solace and companionship in stray dogs than human beings. These two are critical to the success of the show, and they both nail it.

Less successful, though, are some of the supporting characters. Members of Jack's behavioral sciences team don't get much development, and basically exist to dole out exposition in the form of autopsy reports and are essentially the only ones in the entire series who get to crack jokes. Their presence is fine, but they often feel somewhat disposable. A subplot involving a blogger, Fredricka "Freddie" Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) trying to angle in on the Hobbs case feels like it has potential, but is often left behind. Freddie disappears for much of the season but then returns when the Hobbs storyline does, and I'm not sure the actress quite nails it. She's not bad, but sometimes she comes off more as aggravating than dogged.

Laurence Fishburne's character gets a couple of subplots, though the one involving his grief over a murdered protege is more interesting than a situation involving his deteriorating marriage. Still, Fishburne does what he does and the man's silky-smooth voice is always a pleasure to hear. Fishburne rarely gets to be too intense, but when he does, it's great. At times, though, his character can feel like a waste. He's often out of the loop on what's happening with Graham and Lecter, and like the other FBI characters, sometimes just exists in order to send Graham on his way. But on the times when he manages to rise above that, he's great.

The show's visual style is intriguing for network television. Dark, dreary, seemingly constant cloud cover and desaturated colors are the rule of the day. The show feels a lot like the first few seasons of "The X-Files," but often with contrast bumped up to uncomfortable levels. The show's sound design appears to be equally attuned to make viewers unsettled while watching the show, taking pains to exaggerate certain sounds that grate against the ears. The synthetic, atonal musical score is creepy as hell.

The show is also very, very graphic. Murder victims are displayed in horrific states. In one episode, Graham and Lecter hunt a serial killer who creates musical instruments out of his victims, and the episode opens with grisly shots of a body turned into a cello - using the vocal cords as the strings.  "Hannibal" is not a show for the squeamish.

These stylistic choices may turn off a lot of viewers. There's very little warmth or levity in these episodes. The series is a downer in many respects, right up to and including it's shocking cliffhanger finale. Coupled with Graham's growing mental illness over the course of the season, which takes the form of many disturbing visions, and the series can be downright difficult to watch.  Additionally, some of the more standalone episodes in the middle of the season don't hold the interest as much as the ongoing storyline involving the Hobbs case.

But overall, "Hannibal" is a huge success if you're a fan of the serial killer genre. Dark, fascinating and often quite intense, it's a fantastic first year. Despite not being a ratings winner, "Hannibal" was renewed for a second season to debut in 2014 and I can't wait.