Like a painstakingly plated dish, "Hannibal" dazzles with sumptuous visual style. Yet all those amazing ingredients add up to an experience more akin to a strip-mall buffet than fine dining.
"Hannibal" (9 p.m. Thursday, NBC, 2 stars out of 4) is NBC's highly anticipated, contemporary take on characters from Thomas Harris' bestselling novels that introduced the world to the cannibalistic connoisseur Hannibal Lecter, made famous by Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning portrayal in "Silence of the Lambs."
The series is based on a brief part of the first novel, "Red Dragon," in which FBI investigator Will Graham consulted imprisoned psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer Lecter about another psychopathic murderer. "Hannibal" serves as a prequel to the entire Lecter legend, from the novels to the movies, and returns Graham as the main character.
As the show begins, Graham is lecturing at the FBI academy after an emotional breakdown over his investigation and fatal shooting of a serial killer. Expertly played by Hugh Dancy, Graham is a withdrawn shell of a man whose soul is tortured by his own neuroses. But his ability to empathize with murderers makes him a top-notch criminal profiler, which draws his old Bureau boss, Jack Crawford (a solid Laurence Fishburne), to Graham's academy class.
Unable to catch a killer who impales his female victims on deer antlers, Crawford convinces Graham to consult on the case--and then another. And then another, until Graham starts to unravel again.
Enter suave Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who partners with Graham at Crawford's behest to help soothe the profiler's fragile state. Lecter has a secret, and it isn't his culinary prowess. He creates gourmet feasts, but no one knows he's serving up things like human lungs with claret sauce.
The series is visually fantastic, with producer Bryan Fuller employing the same breathtaking style he used in my personal Fuller favorite, "Pushing Daisies." Instead of whimsy, however, he's going for grisly in "Hannibal." Dead bodies are posed almost religiously and scenes are splashed with a lot of crimson blood. Even a field where humans are used as compost looks grossly gorgeous.
Sounds tasty so far, but that's where the feast ends. Danish actor Mikkelsen is unsettlingly creepy as Lecter, but many lines are lost due to his accent or simply his mumbling. Even when you can understand all the psycho-babble he sprouts, the scenes become far too talky-talky.
The story, too, often feels strained. There are as many holes in the plot as stab wounds in some of the victims. In one episode, Lecter escapes from a house with a girl and a dead body even though it is surrounded by police--without any explanation. In another, a killer who skins his victims' backs to give them angel wings (this is grisly stuff, folks) is found in the same condition, hanging from barn rafters. Viewers are left to wonder how he was able to do that to himself, a question that doesn't seem to trouble Crawford or Graham.
Even in the premiere, Graham zips through a murder scene and then declares of the killer: "He has a daughter the same age as the other girls, same hair color, same eye color, same weight. She's an only child. She's leaving home. He can't stand the thought of losing her."
Wow, he is good. I wonder why he can't recognize Lecter for the killer he really is.
Even with all the vomit-inducing states of death it presents, the most unappetizing part of "Hannibal" is its lack of humor. Viewers need a break from all that darkness, and there's very little to laugh at except the gastronomic episode titles, which include "Aperitif" and "Amuse-Bouche."
In seriously exploring what drives people to kill, "Hannibal" serves up a meal too heavy to enjoy each week.
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