The small screen has given cinema a bit of a kicking in the last few years. Television is in the middle of another golden age. The likes of House, The Sopranos, Life On Mars, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead combine the sort of budget, acting talent and writing usually reserved for high-end movies. It’s debatable whether Hollywood has raised its game to match, but fans of fine visual entertainment can’t complain; there’s too much good stuff to enjoy. But when television takes an unlikely turn towards movie franchise territory inevitable doubts arise. NBC has done just that with their take on Thomas Harris’ charismatic flesh muncher.
Hannibal Lecter aficionados were understandably anxious. We might be neck deep in great television series, but swilling amongst the gold is a flood of carbon copy cop shows. The likes of NCIS, Blue Bloods and CSI follow that tired old formula of unlikely partners solving the crime of the week. The thought of troubled FBI Agent William Graham and Dr. Hannibal running around Baltimore in pursuit of a weekly bad guy sounded like another level of cheese to lay on top of previous series missteps Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2006). Nerves were settled when NBC went to the casting top drawer to pull together some tasty acting talent. Englishman Hugh Dancy banked his quietly assured work-to-date by bagging the Will Graham role, while the always watchable Laurence Fishburne graced Jack Crawford’s shoes. The all important title role though landed with great Dane in waiting Mads Mikkelsen. It seemed like perfect casting. Could NBC pull off the unlikely?
As the first series of Hannibal slithers towards its cliffhanger ending the answer is a hearty yes. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is a very different beast to Anthony Hopkins flesheater, but no less brilliant. Quietly menacing, likeable but cold, super intelligent but in no way condescending, stylish and measured, thanks to the program's Danish star Hannibal is easily the most enthralling TV show in years when Mikkelsen is on screen. But its the Hannibal-less down time that NBC had to contend with for the show to truly succeed. Fishburne was a shoe-in for another great performance, but even more exciting than that is the work Dancy puts in as the fragile Graham. What looked like lazy writing at first (lets make him troubled by giving him stubble and messy hair) is turned on its head by the end of the first episode. Channelling the superb work of William Petersen’s Graham turn in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) Dancy completes the essential Lecter / Graham double act with underplayed flair.
But the real genius is that series developer Bryan Fuller chose not to follow the obvious path of serial killer of the week. Hannibal has an intricate overarching story as Lecter’s horrific manipulation of the FBI gradually becomes more apparent as the series strides on, with additional weekly intrigue poured on for good measure. It’s gripping, clever, and never predictable. Interwoven are some some fantastic tributes to the previous Lecter movies, from re-used dialogue ("The world is more interesting with you in it”), repeated visual motifs (the Christ like poses of Francis Dolarhyde), and familiar soundtrack snippets (the flapping of moth wings, the extracts of opera). Add to that nods to other famous horror movies (watch out for The Shining’s Room 237 bathroom and Gold Room red-walled toilets), some delicious black humour (Lecter’s penchant for treating his colleagues to "fantastic” dining) and inspired guest appearances (Eddie Izzard, Gillian Anderson) and the result is the best Lecter outing since The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Even more pleasing is that Fuller has already set out his stall for the entire program, with no sign of milking the series for pointless profit (at least yet anyway). Series 1 will follow Lecter and Graham through their crime fighting double act phase, Series 2 will see Graham discovering Lecter’s meaty secret, and the final series will accompany the haunted Graham as he chases Lecter down. The fact that the climax of the story has already been set in stone (unless Fuller really goes out on a limb and leaves Lecter at large) doesn’t diminish the tension or excitement one notch. This is a story about the chase, not the destination. And if the series continues to be this fascinating, a remake of Red Dragon / Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs with Mikkelsen and Graham continuing their roles would be something any thriller fan would pay good money to see. Here’s raising a glass of Chianti to the next two series.