I think it's fair to say that Hannibal Lecter became an American horror icon for most people with the Oscar winning film "The Silence of the Lambs." Personally, I discovered Lecter back in 1981 when author Thomas Harris introduced him in "Red Dragon." As a kid, I read this novel with a sick fascination and it was easily the scariest book I had read up until that point. Michael Mann adapted it into the film "Manhunter" in 1986 with character actor Brian Cox in the Lecter role, but it wasn't until 1991 and Anthony Hopkins that Lecter became incredibly popular. Hopkins revisited the role with another interpretation of "Red Dragon" and then "Hannibal," and has owned the role ever since. When I heard that NBC was helming a drama based on Lecter, I thought it was a disastrous idea! Network television is no such place for such evil! But I must say that the program has far exceeded my rather limited expectations. Created as a prequel to the events of "Red Dragon," the show has a thoughtful slow burn appeal that shows surprising restraint. The program might have some gore, to be sure (especially by traditional network standards), but it succeeds most spectacularly as a psychological study of two men with more in common than they'd like to admit.
The plot centers around a FBI profiler named Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Graham can literally get into the mindset of a killer, and the show stages vivid and brutal recreations as Graham uses these skills to analyze crime scenes. This innate ability to think like a monster has taken an emotional toll on Graham, and he is an absolute mess. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is a brilliant psychiatrist who aids in an early investigation but is drawn to the darkness within Graham. Through the course of the episodes, Graham and Lecter become closer. Each seems to get something very important from the relationship. Are they doctor and patient? Friends? Or is Lecter playing a sick game of cat and mouse? It's a fascinating dynamic, one of the strongest components of this show. While some of the episodes are self-contained, more and more is revealed about Lecter as the season progresses. Anyone who is familiar with "Red Dragon" might know where this is ultimately heading, but it's the journey that is more important than the destination in this case.
Dancy is pretty terrific as the scarred and haunted hero. And Mikkelsen is the master of understatement. He underplays every scene to perfection, and this detachment gives "Hannibal" a chilling center. Other familiar characters from the books (and movies) are present like reporter Freddie Lounds (a female in this version), prison warden Frederick Chilton, and FBI Director Jack Crawford (played by Lawrence Fishburne). Gillian Anderson also pops up for a few episodes as Lecter's therapist and they play off each other wonderfully. "Hannibal" is generally well cast, although some of the smaller recurring roles have yet to be developed in any kind of meaningful way. But as long as Graham and Lecter remain in the center, you aren't really paying much attention to the peripheral cast.
The plotting in these 13 episodes is a mix of self-contained stories with several significant on-going threads. Not every individual case is a compelling as the central story strand, but that's to be expected. I always wonder why everyone in the world isn't dead with the number of serial killers that populate popular entertainment! What really distinguishes "Hannibal," though, is its tone. It is not played as an action thriller. Oftentimes, it is quiet and contemplative relying on character interactions to up the unease factor. It is smart, literate, and takes its time. That's what was so unexpected for me, and why the show might not be perfectly suited for someone looking for mindless entertainment. It requires and rewards patience. The actors are great, the staging is unsettling, and the effects are solid. This was put together by a team (led by Bryan Fuller from Heroes and Pushing Daisies) who wanted to honor the Lecter legacy and be true to it. One of the more unusual network offerings of the last year, and one of the best. KGHarris, 5/13.