NBC once had the most elegantly macabre show on TV
Hannibal is a brilliant show that was condemned to die; it had a bad time slot on an unlikely, fairly mid-tier network. That’s not a criticism of NBC – the network makes good shows, but it’s just not HBO, AMC or FX. It’s not known for Emmy-winning dramatic content. That’s why Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a deeply weird, eccentric and visceral show, is such an odd choice for NBC. Lo and behold, the show struggled to find the ratings it needed and was cancelled after its third season. However, the three seasons that were made are truly special.
The plot of Hannibal is loosely this: FBI investigator Will Graham, played by the amazing Hugh Dancy, is awkward, reclusive and very good at his job. He is great at catching killers because he can put himself in their shoes like no other. Yet doing this has adverse effects on his mental health. Given that Will is essential to the FBI, they hire Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by the magnetic Mads Mikkelsen, to ensure Will is getting the help he needs. Hannibal is a great therapist, but he’s also a murderous cannibal. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The show makes no secret of Hannibal’s often antagonistic nature. What I’ve already outlined is all explained in the first half of episode one, which should give you a sense of how layered this show is.
Hannibal is deeply influenced by 17th- and 18th-century art; it contrasts the often gruesome subject matter with baroque paintings, sculptures and music. This results in a show that is both beautiful and horrifying. The cinematography is evocative and inventive, frequently using slow-motion and deep-focus shots. It all comes together to make a beautiful, distinct and appealing world, despite its macabre subject.
As the show progresses, the symbolism and theatrical elements become more pronounced, to the point that it becomes truly weird and unreal. I enjoyed this development, but if weird isn’t your thing then Hannibal may not be for you. However, the show does ease you into the weird, so perhaps by the end even the most apprehensive of TV watchers could be won over.
It is worth noting that Hannibal can seem gruesome. It is a show about a cannibal and an FBI investigator, after all. The crime scenes are practically made, dramatic and breathtaking, in keeping with the show’s rigorously brilliant visual style. They can be brutal, and often hard to look at, but the show is never sadistic and it never takes pleasure in the gore. It just comes with the territory. That being said, if you cannot handle blood, you cannot handle Hannibal.
The acting and plot are brilliant, and over the three seasons these characters truly become fundamentally different people. Even Hannibal grows in his own way. Moreover, the show itself changes too. It begins as an especially great police procedural, but by the end its momentum comes entirely from the drama between the characters and the choices they make. As the cherry on top, it has a satisfying ending, despite being cancelled. The creators were hyper-aware of their show’s tenuous position, so they engineered the ending of season three to function as a series ender. Hannibal is a special TV show and, in my mind, has yet to be topped.
All three seasons are on Netflix. Check them out if you can!