At first blush, “Hannibal” looks like the conceptual twin of CBS timeslot rival “Elementary,” a series that seeks to leverage a brilliant literary character to sell a moody procedural. It’s also a little like “It Takes a Thief,” only here substituting a serial killer. Stick with the series through a handful of episodes, though, and it’s clear that showrunner Bryan Fuller has brought a semi-hypnotic quality to this prequel adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter character — ungainly and messy, but at times visually arresting, and thanks in large part to the central trio of Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne, quite interesting. Bon appetit.
Granted, NBC’s Thursday lineup is a devalued piece of real estate, and sustaining the show for any length of time seems like a high-wire act. As A&E’s “Psycho” precursor “Bates Motel” demonstrates, the benefits associated with such a well-known property can be creatively offset by the challenge of working backward from it, with all the limitations that entails.
For now, though, “Hannibal” is the tastiest drama the network has introduced in awhile. Although bearing some of the same hallmarks of more straightforward shows like “Criminal Minds” — with a protagonist uniquely gifted, or cursed, in seeing through a psychopath’s eyes — the program manages to incorporate some provocative twists as well, primarily in the interaction among its key players.
The tormented profiler is Will Graham (Dancy), who is enlisted by FBI honcho Jack Crawford (Fishburne) to help identify a particularly grisly murderer. Yet Graham’s inner demons cause Crawford to put him in contact with a psychologist, Hannibal Lecter (Mikkelsen, the Bond heavy in “Casino Royale”), who provides both a professional and personal sounding board.
Except Lecter, as only the audience knows, is a killer himself, one who uses access to these criminologists to his advantage, ingratiating himself to, and subtly manipulating, each of them. Part of that includes treating everyone around him to elegantly prepared meals, so sumptuously presented it’s no wonder “Hannibal” includes a “food consultant” among its principal credits.
“You won’t like me when I’m psychoanalyzed,” Graham snaps at Lecter in an early meeting — a callback to The Hulk that proves ironic, since he’s not the one with a giant monster hiding inside.
What makes the show work, mostly, is the creepy tone (Fuller’s preoccupation with death was put on comic display in “Pushing Daisies”) and Mikkelsen’s suavely understated take on Lecter, whose eerie sense of calm and reassuring manner make plausible the notion of such deep-seated evil hiding in plain sight, much like the antihero at the center of “Dexter.”
How long Lecter (and by extension Fuller) can maintain the charade is another matter, and even those who savor the show might find themselves wishing it were merely a limited series. More than for the gruesome imagery, this is a show that cries out for cable, simply because it’s hard to envision a 22-episode broadcast run of “Hannibal,” much less four or five such seasons. Besides, if Graham and Crawford let the bad doctor operate under their noses for that long, they’re not so brilliant, are they?
Still, “Hannibal” does create an unsettling atmosphere, leaving one wondering where the show will lurch from one episode to the next — perversely, perhaps, since the whole thing could so easily implode.
NBC’s broader struggles and woeful results with short-lived Thursday dramas have no doubt diminished some expectations, which qualifies as a mixed blessing. In that context, Hannibal feels more like a stopgap measure than a longterm solution. But this spring tryout tickles the palate enough that it shouldn’t be just another lamb to the slaughter.
(Series; NBC. Thurs. April 4, 10 p.m.)
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Laurence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettienne Park
Filmed in Toronto by Living Dead Guy, Dino De Laurentiis Co. and Gaumont Intl. Television. Executive producers, Bryan Fuller, Martha De Laurentiis, Jesse Alexander, David Slade, Sara Colleton, Chris Brancato, Katie O’Connell, Elisa Roth, Sidonie Dumas, Christophe Riandee; supervising producer, Scott Nimerfro; Jennifer Schuur, Carol Dunn Trussell; director, Slade; writer, Fuller; based on the characters from the book “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris; camera, Jim Hawkinson; production designer, Patti Podesta; editor, Art Jones; music, Brian Reitzell; casting, Cami Patton, Jennifer Lare. 60 MIN.