Why Hannibal Is The Best Show On TV Right Now
It's Smart And Poetic, But Not Pretentious
The writing of Hannibal is really something else. Horror movies are so straightforward and cliche, and even shows like The Walking Dead hope we'll confuse soap opera melodrama for something deeper. With Hannibal, it's the subtle poetry in the dialogue and the visual design which draws us in, from Hannibal's distinct, cultured dialect, to the nuanced study of Will's intelligence and how his "gift" affects him, to the intelligent psychological discussions. This is arthouse horror, almost Lynchian in its construction, but it's not weighed down by pretensions.
At its heart, Hannibal is a compelling examination of the nature of evil, but it's also a dark pulp thriller, with a rich sense of momentum and spine-tingling fun in every episode. Although it's character-based horror, it never forgets that for all of the emotionally rich scenes of two people sitting together and talking about their weaknesses, it's a horror tale first and foremost, and most episodes are rich with disturbing images and moments of heart-thumping terror.
Astonishingly, Hannibal continues to maintain this balance, giving unforced, satisfying complexity to what is ultimately a horror show. It's so incredibly unique, and it's doubtful we will ever see anything like it again.
It Defies Expectations In Smart Ways/Plays With The Format
Initially, Hannibal may appear to be nothing more than another boring police procedural, but it's something far more. The murder mystery element is bolstered by Will's gift and Hannibal's input, and all the while we know that Hannibal is up to no good and toying with absolutely everyone as his grand plan falls into place. However, it eventually moves past the episodic Law & Order-esque structure as it progresses. The focus is constantly shifting - just when you're comfortable with the routine, the series throws you a curveball and goes in another direction. I expected Hannibal's incarceration at the end of Season 1, but Will was framed instead and we begin to wonder about him.
The beginning of Season 3 shows again why the show is so great. Everyone was reeling from the Season 2 cliffhanger, and you're keen to get in and see who survived and what the aftermath was...only to be treated to the first episode of Season 3, which offers no closure. Most shows would deal with the cliffhanger first, but Hannibal is not most shows. And it's not like this is a cheap device to ensure we tune in - it just again shows that nothing will ever play out as we expect. It reminds us that this is still a psychological thriller, and the sophisticated way it deals with Hannibal absconding and blending into his new surroundings sets the tone for what's to come.
Likewise, the second episode of Season 3 doesn't progress the story at large in any substantial way, dedicating an entire episode to exploring Will's fractured mental state, how the events of Season 2 affected him, and how he's having trouble coping. It's smart writing, and it's far more gratifying than a more straightforward manhunt approach.
So Much Can Be Done With So Little
It's no secret that Hannibal's funding is meagre. It scored a skin-of-its-teeth renewal for Season 2 alone, and Season 3 is definitely pushing it. It's the kind of show that draws rave reviews and scores tonnes of loyal fans who buy the DVD/Blu-ray sets, but it cannot quite score the ratings that it deserves. Due to this, the creators are faced with doing what they can with limited resources. Some shows would try to cover up restricted budget with something more obvious, but Hannibal's ace in the hole is style.
Week after week, I am constantly amazed by what the series does in terms of style and content. It airs in primetime on NBC, yet features some horrifically grotesque images; it's more brutal and full-on than Game of Thrones. But it's the distinct visual style that sets it apart from literally any other show on network television. The cinematography is unparalleled - between the gorgeous shot compositions, the use of slow motion and the visual and aural horror associated with Will's 'dream' sequences, there is always something gorgeous to behold. There's a sense of authority pervading every frame, and you fall under the show's spell so easily.
In addition to all of this, the incredibly creepy sound design deserves a mention, though most may not even notice how skilful it is. Rarely does a show or movie made me cringe or jump with only sound. I mean look at The Walking Dead, which has grown stale. Ardent horror fans will be blown away by Hannibal. And there are other elements to salivate over, including the food. While the cuisine may consist of, well, human flesh and organs, it looks just as delicious as anything you'll see on the Food Network and is presented in such a way that makes it elegant and tasteful. When has any other show made cannibalism so beautiful?
The cast as a whole is simply magnificent, but Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lector is something else. It's a tough act to follow the Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins in his most iconic role, but Mikkelsen doesn't even try to mimic him. He creates a whole new interpretation of the role, using his skills as an actor to essay the character in a distinct manner.
Hannibal is a man who is cultured, resourceful, intelligent, and above all creepy. In the show's early seasons, nobody knows that he's a psychopathic killer & cannibal, and it's so intense to see him interact with his oblivious acquaintances.
I know more than one female who finds Hannibal absolutely sexy, and that's a massive bonus. I mean, Mads isn't Channing Tatum in the looks department, and fuck sake he's playing a fucked up cannibal and a murderer. But goddammit, he's just so intelligent and subtly charming, you understand why it's so hard for the characters to wise up and start to suspect him.
It's Not The Movies, And Doesn't Want To Be
Hannibal may originate from the Thomas Harris novels which were previously adapted into movies, but the show finds its own unique voice. Moreover, it doesn't take the easy approach.
When people think Hannibal Lector, they think of the movies. They think of Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. They do not think surrealistic, arthouse horror. And when/if the show gets to covering those storylines, and perhaps even going farther, we can expect the show to not lose sight of what makes it so good. Frankly, we do not often see people scrambling to see great movies remade, but people want to see this show cover the Harris novels because it will be fascinating to see the interpretation of the source material. To see them filtered through the unique lens of the show.
It Doesn't Pander
The last time filmmakers tackled Hannibal's origins, the result was Hannibal Rising, a standard prequel which hit all the expected bullet points in a workmanlike fashion. And look at something like Rob Zombie's Halloween, which tried to distinguish itself by dedicating a whole hour to Michael Myers' backstory, which ultimately amounted to cliched garbage and took away from the creepiness of the character of Myers. It's the mystery behind the great movie villains which makes them creepy. Though Thomas Harris wrote a Hannibal Rising novel which formed the basis for the movie, this show doesn't feel the need to start over and go back to Hannibal as a kid. It also doesn't find the need for armchair psychology with Hannibal talking about his feelings and providing flashbacks to his earlier life. Hannibal just IS.
So rather than showing us Hannibal's origins, the show is exploring his complicated relationship with Will Graham that was barely touched upon in the Red Dragon novel or any of the two film adaptations. And still, it doesn't pander, because it's always subverting expectations. We know the endpoint, but we don't know the fates of the side characters, or when exactly the known stories will surface in this timeline.