INFINITE IMPROBABILITY: ‘Hannibal’ a delectable new series

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First Posted: 4/8/2013

Nowadays, you can’t just create a movie – you have to produce a franchise. Then it becomes a brand.

Once your long string of unnecessary sequels begins to bomb, you look towards other mediums to build this brand, throwing anything at the wall to see if it sticks. Merchandise? Games? Musicals? Comic books? TV shows? Try them all! Eventually one of them will turn a profit!

Most of these ideas are usually poor ones, but with the right creative team who respects the original source material, it can not only work, but it can also be an improvement over some of those films. “Hannibal” happens to be one of those rare cases.

I was skeptical before its premiere on April 4, and rightfully so – the last time audiences saw Dr. Hannibal Lecter, it was in 2007 in “Hannibal Rising,” a misguided and convoluted attempt to explain the madman’s origins. After the brilliant and manipulative psychologist in “The Silence of the Lambs” was turned into a cheap, over-the-top slasher villain in 2001’s “Hannibal,” 2002’s “Red Dragon” attempted to make the good doctor smart and scary again, and while it was a solid film, it was obvious that this was the last time we’d see Anthony Hopkins in this iconic role, as he was getting older and likely growing tired of the character.

Brian Cox in “Manhunter” wasn’t bad, but it was difficult for me to picture anyone else other than Hopkins slipping that face mask on, so when it was announced that they would be making a television series for NBC, I felt that the only way this would work was if someone didn’t just try to just be him (I’m looking at you, Gaspard Ulliel), instead making the role their own. And despite the title, the other thing they would have to do is use this character sparingly, as Hannibal works best when he isn’t the constant focus, but instead the devil on a good agent’s shoulder. The “Hannibal” pilot episode succeeds in both regards.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (an evil-sounding name if I ever heard one) plays an excellent bad guy, as general audiences may recall when he took on James Bond in 2006 as Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale.” Like Le Chiffre, he plays Hannibal with patience and a creepy subtly that would be lost on a less talented thespian, though he will be brutal when necessary, and in this show, it certainly will be.

For network TV, this show is violent and quite gory, but what saves it from pure exploitation is David Slade’s excellent direction that transcends typical television into film quality work. As the man behind “Hard Candy” and “30 Days of Night,” he can be forgiven for “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” after seeing this, as he takes this blend of “Dexter” and “CSI” and delivers a show that doesn’t seem formulaic or predictable despite its inevitable outcome.

So far, it has stayed true to Thomas Harris’ original novel while taking liberties where necessary to develop an intriguing series, already slated for 13 episodes. Instead of FBI profiler Will Graham seeking help and information from Dr. Lecter right away, he is at first disinterested in him, particularly after he learns that Special Agent Jack Crawford (a perfect role for Laurence Fishburne) has hired him to psychoanalyze him to be sure he’s mentally fit for the job. This makes their relationship so much more interesting, particularly because both men know how to think like a killer – only one acts upon it.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our favorite cannibal, but the star of this show, as it should be, is Graham. Hugh Dancy delivers a twisted yet sympathetic performance; Will isn’t just a clear-cut hero, but a broken man haunted by his uncanny ability to step inside a killer’s mind, even admitting some autistic tendencies. Instead of a happy family man, he surrounds himself with stray dogs over people, and succeeding at his job only disturbs and frightens him more. He doesn’t just see the vicious crimes he investigates – he relives them by reenacting the killer’s movements in his mind, leading to sleepless nights and well-shot scenes.

I haven’t seen acting like this on the small screen since Michael C. Hall became Dexter Morgan, and if this pace and writing continues (thanks to series creator Bryan Fuller, who also created “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies”), it may become just as engrossing. Where Fox’s “The Following,” starring Kevin Bacon, fails, “Hannibal” succeeds, avoiding tropes and cheap jump scares and embracing real tension and development.

It’s hard to believe, but cable, of all things, got this one right – the right people are in front of and behind the camera, but networks still demand ratings over quality and are quick to cancel shows before they even get off the ground and find an audience. If you’re a horror fan who misses “The Walking Dead” and can’t wait for “Dexter” to return, or if you enjoy crime shows but are sick of watching the same old rehashes, tune in on Thursdays at 10 p.m. and support a series with a lot of potential.

If you don’t, you could always catch “Hannibal: The Musical” on Broadway in a few years. It’s the next logical medium, after all.