10 Reasons To Watch: “Hannibal”

NBC’s Hannibal slipped by most of us unnoticed, judging by its ratings at least. That’s a shame because it might just be the most intriguing network drama since ABC’s Lost. The entire first season is now available to stream on Amazon Instant, not to mention the various modes of piracy. No matter how you might pursue it, Hannibal is a show very much worth checking out.

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At first blush it sounds like another one of these quick cash grabs based on nostalgia and prior success. Hannibal is a prequel to Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter stories. Most notable of these is, of course, The Silence of the Lambs. Thankfully, Hannibal is able to avoid feeling unnecessary by focusing on original material brought to life by excellent writing and top notch performances.

Hannibal tells the story of Will Graham, a special investigator with the FBI with the ability to empathize with killers. Because of this he can inform the FBI on a killer’s motives and behavioral tendencies, making him an ace in the hole for most every investigation. His superior, Jack Crawford, fears for Graham’s mental state, so he brings in a psychiatrist to keep an eye on Graham. That psychiatrist is Hannibal Lecter.

Without further adieu, here are 10 Reasons To Watch. And, as an added bonus, one reason to not watch.

1) 13 Episodes

If Lost had a downfall, I would argue that it was the length of its seasons. Over twenty episodes a year left the plots feeling overly complex and the mysteries over stretched, if not abandoned. Perhaps it is the success of Breaking Bad, or the growing appeal of British TV stateside, but there is a shift happening, a shift away from bloated seasons in favor of economically and tightly told stories. Hannibal is a perfect example of this shift. Each episode builds upon the last, story threads tangle and inform each other. It all builds to a gripping crescendo that feels organic and earned. This is all excellent, but what I’m really getting at is the first season is a cinch to binge watch. Although, I would advise against that (I’ll explain later).

2) Music

I’m going to be making references to Breaking Bad and Lost a lot in this article, so get used to it; Hannibal lies at a cross section of the two. Not since Michael Giacchino’s score in Lost has music felt so integral to the story as it does in Hannibal. Well, I take that back, perhaps not since Bear McCreary’s outright genius work on Battlestar Galactica has music felt so important to a show. The score is made up of drones that rumble out like mechanical analogues of pain and fear that clash together into amelodic tones. This richly textured score immediately evokes dread, fear, tension, and horror. Brian Reitzell’s work elevates Hannibal in the moments where it could dip into ludicrous territory (which is, frankly, often) by maintaining a consistent and tangible tone.

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3) Performances

There’s always been this conception that truly great actors wouldn’t debase their art by appearing on TV. Over the past ten years or so that’s been being proven false. Look no further than Breaking Bad for one of the finest casts in the history of film and television. While I’m not sure I can hold Hannibal to the same level, it is nonetheless a showcase for great talent. Hugh Dancy as Will Graham is perhaps the most sympathetic character on a network drama. The level of pathos Dancy brings to the role is astounding. Watching him lose his mind is heartbreaking. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Mads Mikkelsen is the perfect psychopath as Hannibal. His demeanor is cold and removed, but you can feel the gears turn behind his eyes as Hannibal calculates how to behave, how he will be perceived, and how that will further his goals.

4) Dream Sequences

Dreams in film and TV can be the most pretentious crap ever. Writers often take dreams as a opportunity to meaninglessly play with the audience’s heads, or juvenilely explain the ‘point’ of the story. Either way, dreams can be largely a waste of time. That said, dreams play a very important role in Hannibal. They straddle the fine line of being obtuse, pretentious crap and meaningful, coherent visual metaphors. Will’s dreams illustrate not only his state of mind, but how close he is to putting all the clues together in his search for the Chesapeake Ripper. The dream sequences are also almost always a stunning visual treat. The recurring image of the elk is equal parts creepy and beautiful. You can feel Will’s frustrations in these sequences, as well as his deteriorating mental state.

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5) Dramatic Irony

Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you’ve given them that information. In five minutes time that bomb will go off. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they’re saying to you, “Don’t be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There’s a bomb under there.” You’ve got the audience working. – Alfred Hitchcock

Hannibal operates under the same principle. The character of Hannibal Lecter is one that thrives in our collective pop culture consciousness. Fava Beans. The show smartly avoids the tempting grand reveal of Hannibal’s identity. In fact, his first appearance is so casual it is far more alarming than any big entrance could have been. You want to shout at Graham, “Don’t you know who that is!?” And just in case that wasn’t troubling enough, the pilot episode very briefly shows us Hannibal tenderizing the lungs of his latest victim with disturbing indifference. In short, because we we know who Hannibal is and Graham does not, each episode, each scene, has the tension of that ticking bomb.

6) Stylization

Hannibal is made up of a distinct palette of colors, recurring motifs, and an unflinching eye for the gruesome. Each frame of each episode is expertly composed. The production design is consistent, able to imbue sets with the proper sense of creepiness, or safety, as needed. There’s Garret Jacob Hobbs’s killing room where the walls are lined with antlers, giving the space the feel of a iron maiden. Then there is Graham’s home in Wolf Trap, Virginia, that stands like a comforting den out in isolation. The care and artistry carries over into the murder scenes, each one meticulously crafted for maximum creepiness and discomfort. Blood spray patterns could be the next big art movement.

There is one stylistic choice in particular that is worth delving into: the depiction of Graham’s ‘pure empathy’ ability. He observes a murder scene, taking in each detail, before closing his eyes. The screen goes black. A golden beam of light swings across the frame like a pendulum. Then Graham watches time reverse, pools of blood disappear, wounds close up, until he is imagining the exact moment before the murder occurred. Then Graham embodies the killer. We have to watch our hero murder innocents as he dispassionately explains what he is doing, and why, always ending with the same chilling line: “This is my design.” These sequences are disturbing, and that’s the point. Hannibal rarely depicts the actual murder scene, Will must reconstruct and relive it for us. These sequences are meant to distress us, like they distress Will. He fractures his psyche time and again to solve these crimes, and we have to watch as he puts himself through this torture for a greater good. It’s a brilliant construction of a subjective experience for the audience and the character.

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7) Cinematography

This reason truly belongs under the Style heading, but I wanted to isolate it to say that Hannibal might be the best shot show I’ve seen since Breaking Bad. It uses its muted palette in concert with light and shadow in such a way that renders the frame like a chiaroscuro drawing. The composition of the frames, the precise camera movements, every detail is meticulously considered and built upon the last into a show that is constantly gorgeous to watch, even despite the gruesome murder scenes.

8) Tone & Horror

I’ve almost never enjoyed horror films. Most likely because I’m a scaredy cat, but I like to think it is because so much of horror is reduced to gore and jump scares, neither of which feel worthwhile to me. Horror is much more engaging when it is born out of an overwhelming sense of dread. Horror should be about tension and unsettling the audience. While Hannibal has its fair share of gore and jump scares, it utilizes them as tools to punctuate sequences of suspense and dread. Because of this, Hannibal is textured horror, never over-reliant on one tool. No scenes are as disturbing as the ones when Hannibal is feeding his house guests. Every bite they take leaves you sick to your stomach, because you know he’s feeding them human flesh.

All that said, Hannibal does not consider itself above lighter moments. Whether they are darkly comic, or romantic, these are moments that enrich the show and keep you invested.

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9) Procedural vs. Serialized

Procedural programs are only as good as their characters; the plots are cookie cutter. It is how the characters respond to and push the drama forward that matters. Serialized shows rely on long-term plots that engage the characters and the audience. There’s always another goal to reach, another disaster for the characters to contend with. Hannibal is a mix of both in the best way. There is a very clear long term goal: discover and capture Hannibal Lecter. But because show runner Bryan Fuller and his team have crafted full and rich characters, the show can go procedural and still remain functional. In fact, the procedural episodes don’t feel like breaks in the continuity because each murder, each killer captured, puts further stress on Will and sheds more light on Hannibal. Every episode, whether it directly engages Hannibal or not, pushes the narrative forward. So even though it occasionally adopts a killer of the week feel, Hannibal‘s narrative remains cohesive.

10) Season 2 Premieres February 28th, 2014

That’s your deadline. Catch up.

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Now, as promised, here is one reason to not watch Hannibal:

1) It is Gruesome

As much as I have gushed about Hannibal‘s quality, I would be remiss if I did not offer some words of caution. Hannibal is possibly the goriest TV program I have ever seen. While its aim is not to revel in its depiction of gore like a torture porn film, it nonetheless offers up some of the most disturbing imagery ever to grace network TV. Much of the killing is done between commercial breaks or kept mercifully just out of frame. The aftermath, however, is not so delicately handled. Like Graham, we are forced to unblinkingly stare at gruesome murder scenes. I suppose the point is to put us into a similar state of mind as Graham. In fact, the show creates this subjective experience so well that I discourage you from binge watching the show. Alone in my apartment, I foolishly watched three episodes in a row which put me in a state of uncomfortable paranoia. I slept with the lights on.

You might have to watch Hannibal through your fingers, or perhaps you should avoid it all together. It is a remarkable show in terms of tone, craft, and performances, but it can be difficult to watch. Your call.

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