The NBC horror thriller returns on Feb. 28 at 10 p.m. -- warning: don't even think about eating until after you've stomached this behind-the-scenes look
Bryan Fuller is getting to the utterly revolting part. The really good part. The writer-producer is pacing around a conference room gleefully describing the outline for an episode of Hannibal‘s second season. His staff watches this performance while executives from NBC and producer Sony listen on speakerphone.
A farmer finds one of his horses dead, Fuller begins, then discovers the horse is pregnant. “So he induces birth,” Fuller continues, “and a human corpse is pushed out.”
“Oh God…,” moans an executive.
“When the corpse is examined, it’s found to have a heartbeat but no pulse,” Fuller goes on. “They cut it open — and birds fly out!”
Fuller runs through the remaining acts, then waits. The speakerphone is silent. “Hello?” he asks.
“Just digesting,” responds an exec.
“So to speak!” Fuller quips.
The unappetizing twists can’t be too surprising for the suits. Fuller is best known for creating the morbid-minded dramas Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, and the first season of his take on Thomas Harris’ bestselling Hannibal Lecter series was operatically graphic. There was the human mushroom farm, the angel wings made from human skin, and the totem pole of rotting bodies, among other unspeakables. Naturally, the second season is even more extreme, with the premiere introducing a killer who creates a “human beehive” of racially diverse victims stitched together to form a grotesquely colorful palette. Yet NBC is game — it even approved Fuller’s dead-horse/bird-stuffed-corpse idea. “It’s all part of this crazy tapestry that makes this show so unique,” says the network’s entertainment president, Jennifer Salke, who was “really adamant” about reordering Hannibal despite its modest 4.7 million weekly viewers. “We embrace the violence and bizarre creepiness.”
To be sure, focusing too much on the gustatory gore does Hannibal a disservice. The hauntingly surreal imagery, eerie sound design, cinematic look inspired by director Stanley Kubrick, and intricate storytelling make Hannibal the boldest crime drama on broadcast TV — not just for what the show includes but also for the safe procedural clichés it avoids. There’s no congenial team as on the CSI and NCIS franchises, or charmingly mismatched partners as on The Mentalist or Elementary, or teasing romance as on Bones or Castle. There are closed-ended cases most weeks, yet the central plot is heavily serialized. If you randomly tune in to the season 2 premiere and see Mads Mikkelsen covered in black ink rising from a stream with antlers on his head and don’t know what the hell is going on, that’s just too bad. Even the episode titles are a middle-finger flip to accessibility; this season they’re all dining terms…in Japanese.
So here’s an overview of the feast: Last season troubled FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) teamed with Baltimore shrink and closet cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mikkelsen) to solve bizarre murders. Their dark bromance took a surprising turn when Lecter successfully framed Graham for his crimes, sending the investigator to prison — the exact opposite of how fans of Harris’ books expected the season to end. “The only thing he has to hang on to is the certainty of his innocence and his equal certainty of Hannibal’s guilt,” Dancy says of his character. “He’s coming to realize that if he’s going to get himself free and take down Hannibal he’s going to have to do it himself.” The season opens with a bloody flash-forward fight scene between Lecter and Graham’s former FBI boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) — in a kitchen, naturally — and the rest of the season builds to that moment. Also on board: The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson, returning as Lecter’s increasingly suspicious therapist; Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt, joining the fray as Lecter’s demented patient Mason Verger; and Pulp Fiction‘s Amanda Plummer, guest-starring as a killer acupuncturist who lobotomizes her patients.
There are also a couple of changes that could make Hannibal more palatable for casual viewers. Graham has recovered from his hallucination-sparking encephalitis and is more in control (even though he’s imprisoned and everybody is convinced he’s crazy), while Lecter has free rein to manipulate the FBI. “We get to play Will Graham differently because he’s no longer a victim,” Fuller says. “The fun of the season is watching Hannibal interact with the FBI.”
The remainder of season 2 will continue to explore Fuller’s original take on the Lecter universe, and then the presumed season 3 will mine Harris’ book Red Dragon. Until then, Fuller must keep serving up fresh horrors. In the writers’ room, there are debates about whether you can really swallow your tongue (“It’s more like inhaling your tongue,” Fuller insists) and how long before a corpse starts to decompose (“There are so many preservatives in food and drinks nowadays that bodies don’t decay in earnest for three days,” he adds).
When the table breaks for lunch, Fuller has a sushi plate, perhaps in keeping with his titles’ Japanese dining theme. He glances at his writers as they eat. “I’m amazed that after season 1 everybody here isn’t vegan.”