If you are not watching NBC’s horror-drama “Hannibal” on Thursday nights, you should be. I say this as someone who is generally not much of a TV-watcher. I am also mostly disgusted with the perverse and nonstop violence that marks much of popular modern television. “Hannibal” is both of these things: perverse and very, very violent. Yet it is a captivating show, and masterfully done, at that.
This shouldn’t be the case, because—viewed from any number of angles—“Hannibal” is a fairly bad show, and any other program that had its defects would have surely been cancelled long ago. But, taken with its remarkable strengths, the show is actually quite good—in some respects, possibly great. So it endures, that strange rare hybrid of genuine quality and unbridled, pretentious television slop.
I’ll watch it for ten seasons if it hangs around, because “Hannibal” is the best worst show on television. In examining this show’s strengths and weaknesses, we’ll start with its negative aspects, some of which are bad enough to be comical.
1. The Antagonist
Most of us know Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins: brilliant, witty, mild-mannered (until he eats you), cunning. The original Hannibal was a smart, crafty psychopath, a formidable enemy who couldn’t be tamed. NBC’s Hannibal is all of these things, but he’s also something else: a superhuman with total omniscience and omnipotence.
There is literally nothing that Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is not capable of. He is apparently an expert at every type of hand-to-hand combat; he can basically be anywhere in the world he wants to be in the space of eight hours; he is an insanely accomplished surgeon; he is not merely an expert in human psychology, but evidently a mind-reader as well; and he has a net worth that, so far as anyone can tell, hovers around three or four trillion dollars. This is not your mother’s Hannibal.
Mikkelsen himself has interpreted this version of Hannibal to be like Satan: “This fallen angel who’s enamoured with mankind and had an affinity for who we are as people.” This is an interesting interpretation, but ultimately it does not jibe with what we see on-screen. The business of Satan, after all, is collecting souls; the business of Hannibal, as the character himself has admitted, is “curiosity:” he just wants to torment people to see what happens. It’s a postmodern devil: all of the malevolence, none of the theological consequence.
At one point, a character commits suicide in front of Hannibal by taking pain pills. Hannibal brings her back to life with an adrenaline shot, but only after flipping a coin to decide if he would do it. At another point in the show, Will Graham comes down with an illness, but only Hannibal knows he is sick, and Hannibal tells nobody, just to see what will happen as Will’s condition deteriorates. It makes no sense; none of it is explicable or even remotely decipherable. This is a boring Satan.
2. The Plot
The plot itself is just ridiculously outlandish, and grows more so with each season. It’s a wonder we as adults are expected to accept it. The story’s framework loosely revolves around Hannibal assisting the FBI in solving serial murders; his team consists of Special Agent Graham, overseen by behavioral sciences head Jack Crawford, along with a team of agents, cops, and teachers.
On its face, this is a normal, ho-hum kind of crime drama, but the stories grow increasingly unbelievable with each episode. A psychopath stitches together a massive mosaic out of embalmed human corpses. Another killer makes a massive totem pole of his victims. A character is killed, sliced into super-thin, Visible Human-style wedges, and put on display to taunt the FBI. A man is killed, his body ripped apart and re-assembled as a half-human, half-saber-tooth-cat exhibit in a natural-history museum. A killer transforms his victims into “angels” by slicing wings out of the flesh of their backs.
All of it is just impossible and absurd. All the while, of course, Hannibal is omnipotent, wandering in and out of the action, killing people with impunity, presumably spending millions of dollars, eating his victims (and feeding them to his friends), secretly interacting with the serial killers themselves, and never getting caught.
3. The Dialogue
It is frustrating enough to have to deal with the magical realism that defines most of this show, but for good measure the writers also throw in a large amount of insufferable dialogue. Most of the talking that takes place on “Hannibal” is incredibly deep, philosophical and long-winded; almost nobody in Hannibal-land is capable of speaking in anything other than aggravating metaphysical dualities and abstract intellectual pontification. You can’t escape it. As an example, here’s a moment between Hannibal and Will from season one:
Hannibal Lecter: Perhaps you didn’t come here looking for a killer. Perhaps you came here to find yourself. You killed a man in this very room.
Will Graham: I stared at [my victim] and the space opposite me assumed the shape of a man filled with dark and swarming flies. And then I scattered them.
Imagine talking like this all the time, and imagine how exhausting it would get. Now you know how it feels to watch “Hannibal.”
With all of these (admittedly serious) flaws considered, we turn to the show’s strong points, which are also very strong.
1. The Acting
In spite of the dreadful dialogue, the show is acted very well. Mads Mikkelsen was an excellent choice for Hannibal. Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford was an equally-great pick. Hugh Dancy and Caroline Dhavernas are great both on their own and as an awkward couple trying to figure each other out. The supporting cast—including the revolving door of over-the-top serial killers—is also very well chosen.
2. The Cinematography
There’s just no way around it: “Hannibal” is surely the most beautiful show on television. The money they saved by hiring MFA grad students to write the scripts has definitely been put to good use: from the cannibalistic “food porn” to the moody, washed-out Baltimore backdrop to the elegance of Hannibal’s living spaces and psychiatry office, the show consistently draws you in with the captivating beauty of its visual style. It vaguely reminds me of a cross between early-season “X-Files” and early-season “Lost”: often-stunning sets mixed with dreary, moody, quasi-claustrophobia.
3. It’s Just Plain Fun
As I said, I’m on record as disliking the sick violence to which many television shows resort these days in order to move the plot. “Hannibal” has plenty of violence, much of it twisted and disgusting, but it is nonetheless a captivating show, and a genuinely fun one at that. You can actually laugh at the show’s shortcomings, its awful dialogue and godlike titular character, and its completely preposterous plot developments. While you’re laughing, you’ll also be treated to some great acting and a really incredible set of visuals.
It’s a show worth watching, in other words. Lest there is any confusion, I am not maintaining that “Hannibal” is one of those cheesy “so-bad-it’s-good” programs. Rather, it’s a show that simply tries too hard in a number of ways, with writers that take themselves just a little too seriously, and with an antagonist that would probably be better placed in a fantasy novel. If you can get by these problems—and you can—you’ll have a good time with this show.
The Nielsen ratings for “Hannibal” have not been doing well as of late. It is a show apparently unappreciated in its own time. Perhaps it will go off the air before it can be completed. This would be a great loss to television, and to the dwindling number of viewers who enjoy it. In the meantime, those of us who have been drawn into “Hannibal” are enjoying it for what it is: one of the greatest dumb television shows currently on-air.