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Hipster Menu Description (HMD) of Hannibal: The bad guy from Casino Royale, Morpheus, cruelty-free radicchio, Mr. Claire Danes, Prosciutto, murderous dream sequences, Top Chef-quality cannibalism, emmenthaler, and absolutely no fava beans or chianti.

The most shocking thing about Hannibal is the fact that it's on NBC. It’s difficult to describe how far NBC has fallen over the last decade, especially in the drama department. All-time, the network has the most Emmy wins for Outstanding Dramatic series (21 vs CBS' 18.) But it’s been five years since it was even nominated (Heroes) and ten years since an NBC show actually won the award (The West Wing). Since then, NBC has been churning out drek like Do No Harm and Revolution. On their way down to these unprecedented depths, the network decided to cancel Law & Order. It wasn’t underperforming in the ratings. Sure the last group of cast members weren’t Jesse L. Martin, Jerry Orbach, and Fred Thompson, but the show was still totally viable from a ratings standpoint and clearly NBC had nothing better to replace it with. I think NBC cursed itself when it cancelled L&O, like the Red Sox when they sold Babe Ruth. That’s the only explanation for their precipitous decline.

Hannibal is not the 2004 Red Sox. It’s not even the ‘03 Red Sox. This show is not redemption. It’s simply a bright spot in an otherwise destitute programming slate. I seriously doubt it’s a sign of things to come for NBC. Don’t get suckered in and start watching Chicago Fire for any reason.

Why You Should Watch

Hannibal Lecter is one of the most iconic characters of the last thirty years. Originally created by author Thomas Harris in his novel, Red Dragon, Lecter hit the mainstream in 1991 when he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins won an Oscar for the role and reprised it for two more films, 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon. The character resonated with and frightened audiences so much that AFI chose Hannibal Lecter as the #1 Movie Villain of All Time. Given Hollywood’s propensity for recycling material, I’m shocked it took this long for a TV series to be made. But the show is here, and it’s damn good.

Hannibal’s ratings are modest. There are a few reasons for this. First, the carcass smell of NBC drives viewers away. They’ve been burned before. Frankly, if it’s not The Biggest Loser or the ridiculous yet highly entertaining Splash, viewers just don’t trust NBC. Second, the show got a mid-season start, which hurts because many viewers have already chosen their shows for the season by the March. Third, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition. It loses old people because CBS exists and, less importantly, it shows Elementary in the same time slot as Hannibal. It loses some men, because TNT shows a quality double-header of NBA Basketball on Thursday nights. And it loses some women because ABC has a show called Scandal which women will watch based on the title alone. But nevertheless, Hannibal is persisting. In key demographics, it’s NBC’s strongest drama and it's not close.

The ratings have remained steady because, I’ll say it again, the show is actually good. Hannibal draws you in at first because of how beautifully it’s shot. Everything on the screen is crisp, detailed, and elegant. The juxtaposition of this elegance with the horror of the gruesome murders that occur in the story is intriguing and unique. Shows like The Walking Dead are all ugly, all the time. They bludgeon you over the head with horror, violence, and depression. After awhile you just get numb. But the violence and evil in Hannibal consistently lands resounding blows precisely because the avoids viewer numbness by picking its spots. When there is no violence to be seen, this show could easily be about a troubled FBI agent and his classy, mysterious therapist. By picking its spots and keeping your eyes rapt on the screen with vivid cinematography, Hannibal rivals the best shows on TV in terms of the value you get for 60 minutes of your time.

The show centers around Dr. Will Graham, a former FBI agent who has been reinstated to catch a serial killer. Graham is played by Hugh Dancy, a fantastic british actor best known as one of the thousands of great actors in Black Hawk Down and as Isla Fisher’s love interest/boss in Confessions of a Shopaholic. Dancy’s portrayal of Graham is equal parts fragile and frightening. Graham is tapped by the Bureau because of his unique ability to get inside the mind of a serial killer and think as they do. This is depicted in the show is fantastic dream sequences where Graham takes the place of the killer and reenacts the crime while coldly narrating everything he’s doing and the reasons behind it. The character who can get “inside the mind of a killer” is a super common cliche in movies and TV, but Dancy’s portrayal and these fantastic reenactment sequences really put Will Graham outside the cliche in a blue ocean of fragility and psychosis. Tracking killers takes Graham to the edge, and in order to keep him from falling off a cliff mentally, his boss, played by a very understated Laurence Fishburne, gets him some professional help. Enter Hannibal Lecter.

This is the essential beauty of the show. Hannibal is not the serial killer Graham is chasing. He’s simply there to consult on the killer’s profile and help keep Graham sane. Lecter is played Mads Mikkelsen, who is best known as the Bond villain who wept blood and really had it out for Daniel Craig’s package. Mikkelsen’s portrayal is quiet. Hopkins inspired fear with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter as someone who, at any moment, could leap upon you and eat you while you were still breathing. Hopkins actively created tension. If Lecter was portrayed this way by Mikkelsen, it would totally undercut the premise of the show because the tension is already there. The audience knows who and what Lecter is. They’ve seen him kill. They’ve seen him eat human meat. But none of the characters are aware. They’re more focused on Graham losing his grip on reality than the cannibal standing next to him. The reversal of character, with the protagonist, Graham, being the crazy one, and Lecter being the picture of sanity really helps this show get out from under the shadow of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Plus, Dancy and Mikkelsen have really great chemistry. Though their partnership is essentially one of a doctor and his patient, but they’re also buddy cops trying to catch a killer. Their relationship is the glue that holds the show together.

As for the plot, it unfolds slowly, but not frustratingly so. It’s refreshingly restrained, especially for anyone who watched The Following this year. The serial killer being hunted from the outset is quite compelling, especially since the show puts as much work and detail into his motives as it does into gruesomeness of his kills. There are moments of tension and moments of exquisite release. Though the show is no doubt building to the revelation of Lecter as a monster, each episode doesn’t feel like it has to bring the characters one step closer to that. Instead, that revelation just seems like something the show is keeping in its back pocket. For now, it totally works without it which is what makes Hannibal one of the most impressive shows I’ve seen in a long while. The degree of difficulty is very high and thus far, everyone involved is pulling it off. I highly recommend it.

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