Friday, 5 April 2013

TV Review: NBC's HANNIBAL - 'Apéritif'

Friday, 5 April 2013
Thomas Harris is largely responsible for creating modern serial killer fiction with his 1981 novel Red Dragon, later turned into the Michael Mann movie Manhunter. His 1988 follow-up, The Silence of the Lambs, made that belief unquestionable after Jonathan Demme adapted it into an Oscar-winning movie. From then, the pop-culture dominance of serial killers being cruel and unstoppable forces of nature (Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Halloween) took a back-seat, as audiences were suddenly bewitched by the dichotomy of killers demonstrating sharp intelligence and sophisticated tastes. Lecter was a modern-day Dracula.

TV didn't ignore this trend, most notably in the 1990s work of Chris Carter: Harris's books were undoubtedly an influence on the FBI backdrop for The X Files, although it was the less-successful Millennium that was more indebted to Red Dragon (both in its focus on 'human monsters' and the quasi-psychic gift of its lead investigator).

So it's only fitting that television is where the latest chapter of Harris's work is to play out; ironically after the author's own literary sequels and their ensuing movie adaptations failed to recapture past glories. The travesty of 2007's prequel Hannibal Rising, five years after the workmanlike remake of Manhunter (keeping the Red Dragon title), appeared to kill off a comeback for everyone's favourite killer: Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter. But the character, nay the franchise, has found an unlikely champion in TV scribe Bryan Fuller--a man best-known for quirky shows like Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, who nevertheless occasionally indulged more macabre fare with Dead Like Me and the recently failed Munsters revival Mockingbird Lane.

Hannibal reuses the title of Ridley Scott's third movie, but essentially takes characters from Red Dragon and creates a loose prequel to that movie. It's almost as confusing as Bates Motel (the Psycho prequel set in the movie's future), but Bryan Fuller's script and vision is already a hundred times more compelling and considered.

"Apéritif" is a pilot episode that you immediately feel satisfied with and understand how the show will work going forward, albeit with some inevitable questions about the longevity of the concept. But we'll come to that later. It's a relatively clichéd set-up in many ways, or has grown to be considered so over the 30-years since Harris helped establish these clichés: FBI Special Investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is asked to investigate the disappearance of various college girls by Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who knows Graham has a unique ability to empathise so strongly with people that he can mentally recreate crime scenes and put himself in the head space of maniacs, with such lucidity that it's a threat to his own mental stability.

To help keep Graham sane, Crawford has also asked renowned psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to keep a close eye on him, with both men blissfully unaware Hannibal himself is a serial killer; and one with a particular fondness for eating his victims.

It's my great pleasure to report that Hannibal has a brilliant pilot, having read the excellent script a year ago. So much could still have gone wrong in its making, but it's been cast perfectly and director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) gives the whole production a visual boost. Slade's potentially going to become TV's next go-to guy for dazzling pilots, having also done similarly strong work with Awake last year (which oddly also featured another British actor playing an American with mental issues). There are lots of inventive and memorable sequences, but the most exciting is how Graham's ability is visualised: as he imagines a pendulum swinging, gradually sending himself mentally back in time to piece together the events of a crime scene, occasionally with himself playing the part of the unknown killer. It's a great way to show how Graham's brain works, and far more engrossing than the usual cliché of simply throwing a montage of images at the viewer.

As I said, the cast are a particular reason to get attached to Hannibal. Hugh Dancy (King Arthur, Elizabeth I) steps into the role previously played by William Petersen and Edward Norton, and for my money gives us with the best version of Will Graham yet. Nerdy glasses and an untidy beard can't disguise Dancy's dashing good looks, but there's far more to his character than adding some sex appeal. I love his performance as a benign man with a particular affection for stray dogs, who knows he's been given this extraordinary mind, and must use it to save innocent people, even if the price to pay may be its loss.

Of course, most people will be tuning in to how Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen compares to Anthony Hopkins (who didn't originate Lecter, but who became synonymous with the character after his Oscar win and appearing in two sequels). It probably helps that the mystique of Hopkins's performance in Silence of the Lambs has been cheapened by his less compelling work in Hannibal and Red Dragon, because he barely crossed my mind here. And that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. Mikkelsen is a wonderfully unusual choice, and it goes without saying he unnerves magnificently through simple expressions and shark-like glances. His accent makes Hannibal feel more alien than ever before, although some people may miss the sense of impish fun Hopkins found in the character.

This episode didn't give Mikkelsen many opportunities to truly scare you, but that doesn't matter. He has an immediate presence and oozes bad vibes, so it will be very interesting to see things escalate. I have a feeling that when Hannibal makes his first on-screen kill it's going to have you hiding behind your sofa cushions, and could be quite a shock because he's so calm and tranquil here.

Laurence Fishburne's Jack Crawford could become a stereotypical "boss" character in lesser hands, but I doubt that will happen. It's another great bit of casting, because he just feels so right for this role--as a man who's cautious about putting someone as fragile as Graham out in the field, but who knows it's for the greater good.

I can't think of too many negatives; there are just concerns. How long can the writers keep this show going for? The plan is for five seasons of 13-episodes, with NBC making the rare decision to follow a cable-format. (Interestingly, so has Fox with its serial killer drama: the far less exciting and preposterous The Following.) That means it only has to produce around 65 episodes, and it feels likely that Hannibal's true nature will be discovered in season 3, because Fuller's plan is to adapt the Red Dragon book as the fourth season. One might assume a re-imagining of Silence of the Lambs will form the concluding chapter; particularly as Fuller's also made it clear he'd like to involve Clarice Starling eventually-the unlikely love-interest for Lecter, and successor of Graham's role in the later books.

Overall, I can't fault Hannibal's pilot in terms of casting, production design, directing, writing, or performances. I even enjoyed the nods to The Shining (the FBI's vibrant red-white bathroom) and The Incredible Hulk ("don't psychoanalyse me... you won't like me when I'm psychoanalysed"). I only hope it sticks around to tell its complete story, which feels less assured on a mainstream network like NBC--for a show that reeks of HBO or Showtime. The relative success of Fox's The Following suggests it's possible for Hannibal to also find a similar audience, and it has greater pop-culture appeal because of the Hannibal Lecter character, but it's also a more sophisticated, astute, and frightening piece of TV.

How many people watch The Following for regular doses of cheesiness, cheap jump-scares, and gore? You won't get that here. Hannibal's a far more discerning dish.

written by Bryan Fuller / directed by David Slade / 4 April 2013 / NBC