The first thing fans might notice about Hannibal, NBC's recent foray into the world of psychotic serial killers and the (sometimes) unstable minds who are determined to track them down is that, even in this early outing, this series is several things FOX's serial killer drama The Following is not - i.e., emotionally engaging, legitimately cringe inducing and, most importantly, interested in its topic as something more than a way to push the television envelope.
Certainly, a lot of that has to do with the fact that Hannibal is working with some fairly well known and established characters, so, to a certain degree, the audience is aware what they're getting into. After all, does anyone ever hear the words "fava beans" or "Chianti" without then imagining Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, his piercing gaze burning itself into the mind of Clarice Starling and, subsequently, moviegoers for over 20 years now?
So, yes, in those terms, Hannibal certainly has a (dismembered) leg up on the competition. But more than the character's rich history thanks to Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Jonathan Demme and, of course, Thomas Harris (and to a certain degree William Petersen, Brian Cox and Michael Mann), NBC's big-time gamble on Hannibal Lecter owes its early goodwill to the macabre mind of Bryan Fuller and, in terms of the gorgeous pilot that starts the series off on remarkably solid ground, the directorial prowess of David Slade – who not only knows his way around cinematic vampires of the twinkling and legitimately scary variety, but also directed the outstanding pilot for NBC's dual-reality drama Awake. And here, much as it was with that short-lived series, Slade's direction is impeccable.
What makes Hannibal work is the way in which it approaches both the subject matter and the characters. Make no mistake, this is a dark world for the viewer to enter; it is rife with blood, bits of gore and frequent manifestations of other unpleasant, yet intriguingly dream-like imagery. And while violence plays a significant part in the pilot, it isn't the kind of empty violence that exists simply to propel plotlines and offer a repetitively dour, yet ever-waning thrill; it is there to offer an investigation into the intense ramifications for those who have to deal with violence either directly, or on the periphery – which, as we see in 'Aperitif' can be the victims themselves, their family members or investigators who operate on "pure empathy" like Hugh Dancy's Will Graham.
It is here that Fuller's script does what few others manage, by making the series' central protagonist (potentially) more interesting than those he is pursuing. As is stated in the pilot, Will is driven by fear. He's a bizarre object, something people (those who've managed to get to know him, anyway) are as fascinated with as the killers he helps catch. There is something inside Will that he fears might be let loose. "Don't psychoanalyze me," Will says, bringing to mind the words of another mild-mannered man barely keeping a monster at bay. "You won't like me when I'm psychoanalyzed."
Of course, that scene is the first official meeting between Will Graham and Dr. Lecter – though the episode uses a far more ingenious and seamless segue to introduce the character to the audience. In this quiet moment, Mads Mikkelsen exudes more charisma dining alone at his table than most cinematic and television serial killers of recent memory have in all their various exploits.
What Mikkelsen does best, however, is take the character back to a time before he was a product to be repackaged and sold (despite the fact that is precisely what's going on here). His Lecter is a pitiless therapist that keeps tissues out of the hands of his patient, and when they are requested, he barely moves in order to give them over. But he's also charming when he needs to be, a monster hiding in plain sight under the cover of his own magnetism and brilliance.
The series is also blessed with an outstanding supporting cast. Early on, we see that Laurence Fishburne's Jack Crawford is equally shrewd, plying Lecter with compliments and deference, although he is a very accomplished professional in his own right. Meanwhile, Dr. Alana Bloom (played by Caroline Dhavernas) doesn't have much to do in the pilot, but it's clear she'll be acting as someone who has Will's well-being at heart.
Best of all, it's clear the kind of story Hannibal has in mind for its characters; this season and, perhaps, beyond. This is the story of Will Graham and his time with Hannibal Lecter, a time before Hannibal was locked away and his exploits made him infamous. This is one of those stories like Bates Motel where the audience knows the endgame, but not necessarily the entire journey the characters took to get there. And so far, its first steps are intriguing.
Much like Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is the kind of material that could be pure hokum in the hands of the wrong creative people. Thankfully, as with that film, Fuller and his crew have managed to recapture some of the same frightening, engaging and sometimes devastating magic that made the character of Hannibal Lecter one the world would not soon forget.
Hannibal continues next Thursday with 'Amuse-bouche' @10pm on NBC. Check out what the season has in store in the preview below: