“Don’t psychoanalyze me….You wouldn’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed”
The premiere episode of Hannibal–Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller’s interpretation of Thomas Harris’ sociopathic psychiatrist-cum-cannibal, and the characters that populate his insane world, starts the series off on a strong and incredibly stylish point.
Will Graham (Hugh Dancy of King Arthur and Black Hawk Down) is the primary focus of the pilot – and well he should be: We’ve had four (five if you count Manhunter) novels and films in which to get to know Dr. Hannibal Lecter….It’s only fitting that his playmates get the spotlight at the beginning. And Dancy‘s Graham is a fascinating enough character to easily carry a series even without the good doctor’s assistance.
Graham is a special investigator for the FBI – but not a full agent: strict psychological screening processes prevent him from attaining such status. He possesses unique empathic gifts that allow him to take on the point of view of anyone he encounters – including psychopaths and serial killers: He understands them and the design behind their atrocities. It’s a disturbing gift, being able to empathize with people most of us simply dismiss as inhuman monsters. We don’t WANT to understand why the Geins, Bundys, and Dahmers of the world do what they do…Graham, however, has no choice. It’s simply how his brain works. He lives with the constant fear that one day his empathy will turn him into the very thing he hunts (and a house full of stray dogs he apparently rescues almost obsessively).
Seeking to employ Graham’s talents, without pushing him over that edge, is FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne’s triumphant return to television). Crawford recruits Graham’s aid in a missing persons case which he fears is the work of a serial killer, though Graham is resistant: His gifts make him antisocial, and he’s more comfortable with his position as a lecturer in the FBI Academy at Quantico.
Readers of the novels know these characters, and Fuller (who also wrote the episode) seems to know them just as well. Will Graham’s brilliance, fear, and disturbing intuition are very believable: The character is simultaneously sympathetic and disturbing….a difficult balance to pull off. While Fishburne‘s Crawford is pretty much a less “scholastic” version of his character on CSI (which hasn’t been worth a damn since he left). But that’s a good thing: He’s canny, tough, and a born leader.
It’s not until halfway through the pilot that we’re introduced to Mads Mikkelsen, best known as Le Chiffre in the Daniel Craig Bond flicks (and who may win the “Coolest Name In Hollywood” contest this year) as Dr. Hannibal Lecter: And he’s pretty much everything we’d expect. Fuller seems to be building him up slowly, though…keeping him slightly enigmatic, even though most of his audience knows the written and cinematic versions of him quite well. But I digress.
Crawford enlists the aid of Dr. Lecter to catch the killer who becomes known as the “Minnesota Shrike”….and to maybe take a surreptitious peek inside Graham’s potentially dangerous mind. Crawford is referred to Lecter by a renowned psychologist named Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas). Fuller pulled a “Starbuck” on us, and took Harris’ character Dr. Alan Bloom (also a shrink) and gave him a sex change. It looks as though Bloom is being prepped to serve as Graham’s love interest, something I’m not 100% sure how I feel about, but I’m willing to reserve judgment.
Once cannibalistic sociopath psychiatrist meets mildly disturbed savant, some of the show’s most rewarding exchanges take place: Lecter is clearly fascinated by Graham’s unique mind, but also savvy enough to disguise his interest. Graham doesn’t seem to quite know what to make of Lecter. His help eventually allows him to catch the Shrike, but he clearly knows there’s more going on in the doctor’s brilliant, inscrutable mind than meets the eye. The sense you get is that Graham COULD know the truth about Lecter’s “hobbies” if he looked a little closer – but there’s a darkness there that even a man who hunts monsters for a living shies away from.
- The cast is fantastic. Hugh Dancy is the latest in the proud tradition of British actors who cross the pond, adopt Yankee accents, and get awesome roles in American television: Like Hugh Laurie in House and Jamie Bamber in Battlestar Galactica. His Will Graham is engaging and awkwardly charming, despite (or perhaps because of) his unmistakable strangeness and social ineptitude, and I expect many nerds will see themselves in this character. I’m anxious to see where Fuller plans on taking him . Fishburne’s Crawford is spot-on: Authoritative without stealing the spotlight, despite being the most recognizable actor on the show. The rest of the cast shows promise as well, though it’s too soon to say all that much about them: There’s Crawford’s investigators – Brian Zeller, Beverly Katz, and Jimmy Price (Aaron Abrams, Hetienne Park, and holy shit! Scott “Kids In The Hall” Thompson!) The aforementioned Caroline Dhavernas as Dr. Alana Bloom, and Lara Jean Chorostecki as tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. And there’s more casting joy to come: Next week’s episode will introduce the magnificent Eddie Izzard as an incarcerated serial killer known as the “Chesapeake Ripper”.
- Fuller borrows liberally from Harris’ first Lecter novel: “Red Dragon”. All of the characters are from the book (as is the “Minnesota Shrike”), and about 90% of the dialogue is direct from its pages (though sometimes rephrased or uttered by different characters). This actually pleased the hell out of me: “Red Dragon” is Harris’ best novel, and my favorite of its genre. My biggest worry before seeing Hannibal was that it would be based solely on the cinematic story of Lecter and his cohorts, and ignore the fans of the novels. Instead it did the exact opposite. You don’t NEED to have read “Red Dragon” to follow Hannibal….But it definitely rewards those of us who have.
- Hannibal is visually stunning: Graham’s abilities are portrayed by showing him as the killer, and having him narrate the murder he’s investigating as though he were in the process of committing it…It’s beautiful and unnerving. Director David Slade brought his “A-Game” to the series premiere.
- You may have noticed that I said nothing about Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter in my raves about the cast….Turns out the title character is the only one I have any real reservations about, and the only serious issue I have with the series thus far. First off, the Danish Mikkelsen apparently decided not to follow his co-star Dancy‘s lead and adopt an “American” accent. I don’t know if that voice is something he created for the show…or if that’s just how Danes sound when they speak English…but the man is utterly incomprehensible in some places. I’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt that this aspect will improve – but it was an unfortunate first impression: Especially when you have an actor as eloquent as Anthony Hopkins in your head while you watch Hannibal. Also, he’s overdoing the “eerie menace” just a skosh. Remember: The whole reason Dr. Lecter was such a successful serial killer is because he was so charming and affable that no one would ever imagine he was capable of such acts. Mikkelsen needs to give his Lecter a bit more of a soul – otherwise he’ll continue to come off as little more than a two-dimensional caricature of “evil”.
In summary: Hannibal is definitely worth watching to fans of law enforcement procedural shows like CSI, NCIS, or Law And Order, fans of gory serial killer dramas like Dexter – and a must see for fans of Thomas Harris’ novels. What weaknesses it has look likely to abate as the series progresses – and I eagerly await the next episode.
PS: This is my very first published review, and I’d like to dedicate it to the memory of the late, great Roger Ebert.