By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
7:00 AM CST, February 28, 2014
Serial killer dramas are strange and guilty pleasures. Whether penned by a master or cranked out by a hack, there is no beauty and little insight to be gained from the story of an actual socio- or psychopath, beyond the obvious horror that such people exist.
The brutal men (and once in a great while women) who kill again and again rarely create symbolic tableaux or tantalize with art and anagrams. Jeffrey Dahmer was not an erudite opera lover who invited people to elaborate dinners; John Wayne Gacy did not engage in a psychological minuet with an FBI profiler.
But the banality of evil rarely makes for good television, and serial killers do. Especially when they're tricked out with general brilliance, carefully cadenced speech and a tendency to high culture. We especially like it when they are paired up with requisite troubled detectives who seem just one personality tic away from madness themselves.
In other words, "Hannibal's" back. And, having used its hiatus to miraculous effect, the show, which returns on NBC for its second season Friday, is much better than it once was, perhaps the guiltiest pleasure on television at this time.
The TV prequel to Thomas Harris' killer franchise premiered last year on the heels of Fox's similarly accessorized "The Following." In "Hannibal," Hugh Dancy plays a young Will Graham still grappling with his gifts and new friend, Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), famed therapist, still-secret cannibal.
Brought in to aid Will in his FBI-directed feats of extreme empathy (when the profiler sees a crime scene, he becomes the criminal), Hannibal first tested Will's abilities by mixing in a few murders of his own, and then framed him for them. Which was absurdly easy to do because As Luck Would Have It, Will was suffering not just from his regular empathy overload, but also a form of encephalitis.
By the end of Season 1, he had come to realize what was going on, but it was too late; the finale ended with a very hammy shot of Will in the same Baltimore psychiatric hospital/dungeon cell where Dr. Lecter was at the beginning of "The Silence of the Lambs."
Moody, slick and pretentiously over-strung with symbolism, the first season of "Hannibal" was gorgeously produced and took itself way too seriously, which meant it was often unintentionally hilarious. (Hey, Mr. Super-gifted FBI Profiler: Maybe that scary deer haunting your dreams is derived from the big deer statue in Dr. Lecter's office!)
The gory crimes increasingly resembled a 4-H Fair of depravity (blue ribbon to the mushroom farm!). Will stumbled around like a tweaker in detox, and Hannibal, with his shark eyes and humorless mien, kept serving dinners of veal and tongue. Which people ate!
The only light in the whole dim mess was provided by scenes between the good doctor and his own therapist, one Bedelia Du Maurier, who is played with immobile brilliance by Gillian Anderson. Her face as still as a French model trying to avoid smile lines, De Maurier offered cold counsel and refused all dinner invitations; clearly this dame knows more than she's letting on.
As, increasingly, do more than a few people. This season's premiere opens with a thrilling fight between Lecter and Will's boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who seems to have come around to Will's way of thinking. We flash back six months to Will languishing in his cell trying to convince everyone he didn't kill anyone, even if there was a human ear in his stomach for a while.
Actually, languishing is not the right word. Now that his encephalitis has cleared up, Will is determined to prove that Hannibal is a killer. He spends his time seeking knowledge from what "Sherlock" would call his "mind palace." Only in Will's mind, a river runs through it. By imagining himself fly fishing, Will is slowly able to remember what he already knows.
Meanwhile, Hannibal finds himself beset by a new reality. As the FBI's new go-to-guy, he's knee deep in his own obsessions: killing and Will.
Those familiar with the original story know where all this is going — Will out of jail, Hannibal in, though occasionally helping the FBI find other killers. That knowledge often lent an uncomfortable edge to Season 1 — Hannibal's feasts were one long (gross) inside joke, and it was hard to believe in Will's superpowers when he was being so thoroughly snowed by a guy who seemed so obviously and seriously evil.
With everyone now mostly on the same page as the audience, "Hannibal" can dispense with all the twitchy winks and nods to the franchise and focus on a real psychological drama — two brilliant predators fighting for survival.
When: 10 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)
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