“Hannibal” is so exquisitely rendered that it’s sometimes easy to forget what you’re actually watching, at least until an artery opens and blood streams freely and artfully across the screen. Spared from the TV gallows by international money, this adaptation featuring Thomas Harris’ creation returns for a third season on NBC during the summer (mitigating damage from its relatively puny ratings), while providing its devotees another serving of Mads Mikkelsen, in particular, in the title role. If season two built toward a confrontation previewed at the outset, this year finds the show seemingly in no hurry to get anywhere.
As fans might remember, Mikkelsen’s Hannibal carved his way through the FBI profilers he had charmed and entertained before absconding to Europe (although principally filmed in Toronto, some scenes were shot in Florence and Paris), accompanied by his shrink, Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), who treats him with understandable wariness. Anderson isn’t particularly well used in this venue, but having her on Thursdays after “Aquarius,” starring David Duchovny, provides NBC with a sort-of jump on Fox’s planned “The X-Files” revival.
Bearing a bit of a thematic resemblance to the movie “Hannibal” (easily the low point of the character’s literary and cinematic travels), the good doctor has assumed a new identity that finds him lecturing in an academic setting, feeding his unique appetites based on whoever might be seen as an impediment to his career. The episodes are certainly picturesque, reflecting the gift of showrunner Bryan Fuller (who wrote the premiere with Steve Lightfoot, directed by Vincenzo Natali) for conjuring arresting imagery.
In a sense, the languid pace plays to those strengths. Hannibal’s nemesis, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), doesn’t join the fray until the second hour, embarking on an expedition in the third to learn more about his quarry’s history. Spared from driving the story forward, the series can luxuriate in its atmosphere, as gruesome yet oddly beautiful as that often is.
There is still, frankly, something confining (never mind morally questionable) about building a series around the Lecter character, although Mikkelsen’s magnetic performance and piercing gaze offer ample compensation.
The fierce loyalty the program has engendered among a small group of viewers and many critics — who wouldn’t miss the show unless they were strapped to a gurney — infuses “Hannibal” with a certain cable-style chic. Nevertheless, having already earned one stay of execution, prolonging this sort of exercise for too long risks overstaying its welcome; indeed, Fuller has bucked the odds by wringing this much mileage out of the Graham-Lecter cat-and-mouse game.
Seemingly recognizing those limitations, “Hannibal” promises to turn its attention toward another serial killer during the second half of the season – one who slays entire families, no less – but even that riff feels pretty worn out. And as meticulous as the series is, its well-mannered namesake would likely agree that when the host has to resort to spinning plates to keep his guests entertained, the party, no matter how well catered, is probably just about over.