'Hannibal': the year's most pleasant unpleasant surprise

It’s about time for everyone to start putting together best-of and worst-of lists for 2013, so I’d like to jump in early with a recommendation for NBC’s “Hannibal” as one of the best new TV shows.  I couldn’t imagine how this thing could be any good when I first heard it announced.  Another prequel about the overexposed, nearly cliched Hannibal Lecter?  On television?  Without Anthony Hopkins?  Were these people mad?

Well, yes, everyone involved with “Hannibal” is barking mad, and that’s why it works.  The show is crazy in the same meticulous, elegant, sly way Dr. Lecter approaches his crimes.  Every tiny detail of shot composition, dialogue, direction, and even color palette is part of the plan.  It’s one of the most re-watchable shows in a long time; you notice something new on every repeat viewing.

“Hannibal” succeeds on every level, first and foremost with the recasting of the iconic madman.  No one can ever detract from the brilliance of what Anthony Hopkins achieved, with just a paltry handful of scenes – just over 15 minutes of screen time! – in “Silence of the Lambs.”  But Sir Anthony is a gracious actor, and would be the first to say that others deserve a crack at the character.  Mads Mikkelson is an inspired choice to play this younger free-range version of the ghost that will one day haunt asylum cells.  Everything about him telegraphs both hypnotic elegance and absolute alien horror, right down to his accent, which Mikkelson is perfectly capable of toning down when he wants to.  

This is a monster hiding in plain sight, loving the fact that nobody knows quite what to make of him.  He’s an explorer on safari among a human race that insists on clinging to sentimental notions of moral conduct that fascinate him.  It’s like he’s checking his work on the equation he followed to become a cannibal murderer, just to make sure he didn’t miss any human variables, both amused and confused that equally intelligent people might run the same moral numbers but arrive at different outcomes.  Both the actor and character know exactly what they’re doing, with every word spoken, every gesture made.  It’s the best use of the character by far since “Silence of the Lambs,” and it validates the ordinarily dreary prequel / reboot mechanic – which here becomes an opportunity for new insight and creativity, rather than just a lazy excuse to cash in by acting out a backstory we already know.  (Or do we?  By the end of the first season, it’s fair to wonder if the show might cruise through the events of “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” and retell those stories in an entirely different way.)

Any fears that “Hannibal” might have been toned down for television were surely gone by the end of the first episode, to be replaced by a long series of brilliantly twisted, insanely disturbing “I can’t believe they showed that on TV!” scenes.  Everyone who follows the show can cite a few moments that followed them around and lived in their heads for days afterward, from the monster under the bed to the human totem pole.  Adding to the lunacy is the audience’s knowledge that our dedicated team of FBI investigators is touring these deranged murder sites in the company of the worst monster of all, who they have unknowingly retained as a consultant.  A few of the terrifying serial killers profiled on the show learn what Hannibal really is, to their cost.  Lesser demons should not come into the Devil’s library and challenge him to battle.

I hope “Hannibal” gets renewed long enough to learn where the creators are going with the overarching narrative.  Will it will stop with the events that set the stage for the first book the character appeared in, or will it plow ahead, rewriting the sacred texts?  This creative team has earned the right to try what would once have been dismissed as literary sacrilege.