Why you aren't watching 'Hannibal,' and why you should
I didn’t watch Hannibal until the second season was already over, which means I almost didn’t watch Hannibal. NBC’s cannibal-killer reboot had low ratings in a Friday death slot on NBC, which meant that season 3 was never a sure thing. It could’ve faded into history, another short-lived curio I promise I’ll get around to eventually. (Someday I’ll watch Crime Story. Someday.)
But now here’s Hannibal season 3, starting tonight on NBC (and then living forever on the internet, where you’ll actually watch it.) For me, season 3 is the moment of truth for beloved TV shows that I haven’t watched yet. Will I spend valuable viewing time binging the first two seasons? Or will I make peace with the fact that I will probably never watch the TV show?
The stakes are high. Right before Parks & Recreation started its third season, I took the advice of everyone in the the EW sitcom work-family and watched the first two. Parks & Recreation became one of the central transcendent peaks of my pop culture life. Right before The Good Wife started its third season, I caught a random episode on a plane, thought it was great…and then never followed up. Missing The Good Wife has become one of the central voids in my pop culture life. Meanwhile, I watched all of Boardwalk Empire. You have to live with every decision, good or bad.
So I understand. You’re not sure about Hannibal, no matter how much certain people keep insisting that you’ll enjoy it. Keith Staskiewicz, close friend and learned colleague, spent a year telling me that Hannibal was great. The more he insisted that I would love it, the more I mentally decided I probably wouldn’t love it. “Who needs Hannibal?” I told myself. “I’ve got Orphan Black!” Then Orphan Black had a second season, and I started wondering if Staskiewicz was maybe onto something.
So I watched Hannibal‘s first two seasons. Loved them. Have seen the first three episodes of season 3. Love them. Want you to experience them. But I know why you’re skeptical. Let me answer all your concerns, one by one:
It’s another serial killer show, and I’m tired of serial killer shows.
This was my main concern. Hannibal debuted concurrent to The Following and Bates Motel, right before the end of Dexter. It looks in hindsight like a brief zeitgeist hiccup—serial killers were the superheroes of 2013—but it led into the more experimental serial-murder odysseys True Detective and Fargo.
There was a point in my life where I loved serial killer stories. I still laugh out loud during Natural Born Killers and American Psycho. But the new wave of serial killer shows mostly takes cues from Seven, David Fincher’s riff on The Nature Of Evil and the last time an audience could feel bad for a character played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Seven still holds up, but its pretenders just feel depressing. Not to be a prude, but there’s a weird moral thing that comes into play with a show like The Following: It starts to feel a little inhuman to enjoy something that so freely uses dead people for shock value.
Hannibal steers right into that skid. This is another show where the bad guy is lovable. Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal is like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley or Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Snazzy fashion, great taste, and a couple choice witticisms can forgive any murder. But Hannibal is also a show that digs into why a serial killer can be so lovable. The show begins with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a brilliant investigative mind who is also an audience surrogate. When we first meet Will, he’s a smart but fragile person who really doesn’t want to get into crimesolving and would prefer, all in all, to not spend his days hunting serial killers. (He’s sick of serial killers, just like us.)
If this sounds helplessly meta—a serial killer show about serial killer shows!—understand that Hannibal also glories in the tropes of serial killer mythology. The first season’s episodes follow a Seven-of-the-Week: each hour has a new murderer with a new outré fixation. (One killer, a musician, turns a corpse into a giant cello. That is maybe the third-craziest corpse in Hannibal season 1.)
It sounds gross.
This will sound ludicrous, given that I just used the phrase “turns a corpse into a giant cello”—but the violence on Hannibal will bug you less than the violence on most TV shows. That’s at least in part because so much of the violence is implied rather than shown. There’s a moment in season 2 when one of the show’s lead characters gets killed—and by “gets killed,” I mean “gets discovered chopped into six vertical pieces, meat and bone showing through glass displays.”
But the show doesn’t actually show the process of her death and dismemberment—by the time the characters find her, she’s already on display. Because Hannibal is on a broadcast network, it can’t go full Hostel. So the show’s treatment of death is more complicated. Murder on Hannibal is an act of self-expression, even artistry. In a weird way, the corpses on Hannibal function like the advertisements on Mad Men: a stylish method for the characters to articulate what they want, or what they think they need.
It helps that the show looks beautiful. The show’s central joke is that it shoots Hannibal’s human-food feasts like a Food & Wine photo shoot: You can’t help but laugh, whether you’re an artisanal food-snoot or somebody who hates artisanal food-snoots.
I only like watching serialized TV shows. This sounds like Castle, but Nathan Fillion is a Danish cannibal and Beckett is the guy from Confessions of a Shopaholic.
Hannibal starts off as a criminal procedural, in the specific subgenre of “Procedural Where Crimesolvers Get Paired With Smart Wacky Scientist/Former Criminal/Supernatural Being/Nathan Fillion.” (See also: Bones, The Blacklist, Sleepy Hollow, the upcoming Lucifer where Satan joins the LAPD.)
The first season adopts a rough case-of-the-week structure, and the show quickly builds up a background supporting cast of CSI types. (Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson fills the role of “funny guy bringing moments of lighthearted banter to bleak procedural.”) Again, Hannibal succeeds by simultaneously subverting your expectations and over-delivering on them. There’s a procedural formula to the first season of Hannibal, but it’s much trickier than the typical procedural. Will Graham is finding killers with the help of Hannibal—and Hannibal might be helping the serial killers, or helping Will, or just moving chesspieces around to amuse himself.
Imagine if you could airdrop Gus Fring into the middle of a season of Law & Order: SVU. Or imagine if Bones was still Bones, but at random times throughout the season, it cut away to Emily Deschanel listening to Vivaldi and feeding that week’s guest star his own leg. Actually, just go watch Too Many Cooks, and see how the weird bearded guy starts appearing in the background, gradually turning a wacky family show into a grotesque horror comedy. That is the rough vibe you get from Hannibal‘s first 13 episodes.
It’s important to point out that this is not what Hannibal is now. As Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller explains to my colleague James Hibberd, the crime procedural elements were intended as a “gateway drug..to facilitate not only the network’s comfort level, but also a sense of familiarity for the audience in terms of how we were telling stories.” Season 2 evolves into something you could call a “serialized crime drama.” Season 3 is, like, a tone poem about life in hell.
So what you’re saying is that it only gets really good in season 2? I don’t have time for this. I’m already watching season 1 of Halt and Catch Fire.
Hannibal now is very different from what Hannibal was. But it’s important to explain that this isn’t a Fringe thing, where a decent-but-kinda-boring show suddenly becomes an excellent show by ditching bland structural and narrative elements. To a certain extent, Hannibal underscores how words like “serialized” and “procedural” don’t really have much meaning.
Season 1 episodes usually have a new killer each week, but they also further running storylines and character dynamics established in the pilot episode. Seemingly throwaway events reap intense and incredible payoffs later in the season. Example: The Hannibal pilot ends with Will Graham killing a bad guy—something that most TV cops do at least once a week. But everything that follows on the show follows from that killing: how it changes Will, how it affects his relationships, how it deepens Hannibal’s fascination with him (and vice versa.)
The narrative of Hannibal is a tiny snowball rolling down a mountain. The mountain is very high; by the start of season 3, the snowball has become an ice age. Actually, you could sort of compare it to Game of Thrones, which started off with episodes that gradually/patiently/maybe-a-bit-boringly set up a couple hundred character arcs—careful setup which paid off gradually and then suddenly and then consistently. And unlike Game of Thrones, Hannibal never really slows down once it gets going.
Hannibal Lecter, again? Aren’t there any original ideas?
This was the main, easy gripe against Hannibal when it was originally greenlit, and I would imagine it’s a big reason why plenty of smart, learned cultural types have stayed away from the show. Hannibal Lecter as a character has inspired much good and much bad—but the bad stuff is a lot more recent, and unpopular to the point of irrelevance.
But here again, Hannibal turns a bug into a feature. Because nobody was particularly screaming for a Hannibal Lecter reboot, the show freely cherry-picks aspects of the mythology and ignores the others. Mikkelsen isn’t doing Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter. The show’s visual style pays homage to previous onscreen iterations—but it’s also much dreamier than any of the Lecter films. (Fuller has pointed to David Lynch as an influence.)
As a reboot/remake/whatever, Hannibal actually feels more like what Alan Moore and Frank Miller were doing to superhero comics in the ’80s: honoring the mythology while rewriting it, taking some of the most ridiculous elements completely seriously. This means it’s enjoyable for newcomers, but possibly even more so for people who know the Hannibal saga and would like to see someone come in and try to make sense of it. The new season plunges deep into some of the less-beloved parts of the series—it’s a riff on Harris’ controversial Silence of the Lambs sequel, which also nods toward the outright ludicrous Hannibal Rising—and finds all manner of dark weird beauty and real emotional resonance.
In conclusion: Gillian Anderson.
Still unsure about Hannibal? Want to defend the movie adaptation of Hannibal Rising? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly mailbag.