Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s revisionist Hannibal Lector prequel series for NBC, is one of the better recent arguments in favor of not judging books by their covers. On the surface, it ticks off a lot of boxes on the List Of Boring Critical Platitudes: It’s a reboot of a beloved property, it drastically changes that property’s established canon, it’s a prequel, and worst of all it’s on network television. According to popular opinion, it’s not likely to have any merit whatsoever. Reboots tend to be decried as cynical cash-grabs, adaptations are forbidden from altering their source material, prequels tend to suffer because you know what happens next, and shows on network TV are all neutered and safe, lacking the “edge” of their cable peers. I’ll cop to having dismissed Hannibal for one or more of these reasons when it was announced. “Oh great, another one of these,” I grumbled from atop my Judging Throne.
It’s a mistake I’ve taken care not to repeat, because Hannibal ended up being the best show on television. It’s aired two seasons as of now, with a third about to begin, and it has continued to put the rest of television to shame week after week. Perhaps barring Mad Men, no other show could match its deep aesthetic commitment or its narrative richness. Well, Mad Men is over now, so I’d like to make the case for Hannibal as the current king of the medium.
It’s a prequel-reboot of the “story you never knew” variety, covering Will Graham’s (Hugh Dancy) introduction to Hannibal Lector (Mads Mikkelsen) and their relationship before Will discovered the truth about him. Despite the title, Will is the show’s primary focus. Hannibal himself doesn’t even show up until about halfway through the pilot, when Will’s FBI boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) asks Will to start therapy with him. In any other show, Hannibal would come off as a secondary character, a device to facilitate Will’s character development. Hannibal quickly establishes himself as a co-lead, but his first appearance is notably underplayed. It was clear from the outset that the show was after something bigger than squeezing a little more toothpaste out of the Hannibal Lector tube. And rather than foolishly playing up Hannibal’s cannibalism as a big reveal, it expects you to know about it from the beginning, infusing the whole first season with the dread of when and how the information would arise.
Will and Hannibal’s friendship is the heart of Hannibal — the show builds itself around their imperceptible spiritual connection, a force that neither of them fully comprehend. Will catches serial killers by mentally “becoming” them in fantasy sequences wherein he enacts brutal murders while narrating his actions with a clinical tone. Will is disturbed by his ability to empathize with such monstrous people, and Hannibal’s therapy sessions are his way of working through those issues. Will doesn’t immediately realize that he’s only empathizing with another serial killer in those sessions. Hannibal understands this immediately, of course, and he takes advantage of Will’s emotional lewdness. Hannibal sees his own murderous tendencies in Will, and takes pleasure in the opportunity for truthfulness that Will affords him. Hannibal knows that goodness is not performative, and so he sees Will’s attempts to exorcize his demons as futile. With Will, he can strip away his “good doctor” exterior and be honest about his approach to life, because he knows Will will understand.
If you read that and thought “queer subtext,” you’re right on the money. Hannibal makes it very easy to interpret Will and Hannibal’s relationship as representatively romantic. They have a level of emotional intimacy that’s lightyears past platonic, but the show stops short of making their bond explicitly romantic or sexual. It’s all coded as queer, to be sure, and the lack of literal romance gives the show room to explore their connection on a much deeper and more complex level.
But there have been plenty of shows with such thematic profundity. What sets Hannibal apart is its dedication to filmmaking craft. Even some members of television’s pantheon don’t make great use of the possibilities of film as a visual medium. Hannibal swings outrageously far in the opposite direction, perhaps as an extreme reaction to the ofttimes dull filmmaking of its peers. The show is totally awash in disturbing beauty — it aestheticizes images of extreme gore as if it were Renaissance artwork, presenting increasingly grotesque violence as works of soul-rending magnificence. There are images on Hannibal that are more horrifically violent than I’ve seen in any other TV show or movie, but it’s not trying to shock you. A phrase of key importance in the show is “Do you see?”, asked by killer Garret Jacob Hobbs to Will after Will shoots him in the pilot. Will feels justified in killing Hobbs, but he also begins to see that killing is capable of making him feel good. Hannibal is asking us the same question, trying to get us to admit that there can be something aesthetically pleasing in such vile imagery. That makes the show a challenging work of art to say the least.
There’s also a healthy dose of magical-realism-as-horror on Hannibal, to a degree that even Twin Peaks never reached. Initially this comes from Will’s hallucinations (he’s got a brain disease, it turns out), but as the show goes on it delves deeper and deeper into abject surrealism. A scene of Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) describing her current fears and anxieties is accompanied by a sequence of shots showing her lying in the fetal position and being consumed by a pool of black liquid. One episode repeatedly cuts away to a slo-mo and reversed shot of a teacup falling and breaking, a visualization of a metaphor Hannibal uses. In one shot, the camera tracks the length of a dinner table from above, and we can see pair after pair of disembodied hands clapping in disquieting synchronicity before finally tilting up to reveal Hannibal at the table’s head. There are countless other examples; Hannibal is always pushing its visuals further, testing the limits of abstraction in television as a medium. It might be the first “art-house” TV show, in that way.
Hannibal’s ratings have never been very good. If not for the fact that NBC doesn’t lose much money on it because they don’t pay to produce it, along with the continued critical acclaim it garners, it almost certainly wouldn’t still be on the air. I implore you to start watching it, even if you don’t think you’ll like it. It’s the best thing that television has to offer right now, so there’s no excuse for not at least giving it a try.