Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Hannibal -- Season One (Review)
Hannibal is about a crocodile in human skin. The titular character is a psychiatrist whose expertise is requested by the FBI in a serial killer case. Hannibal, unbeknownst to anyone but himself, is a sociopath, serial killer, and cannibal. While he is interested in the case, he is far more interested in the FBI's Special Investigator, Will Graham. Graham has a strange, maddening, unwanted talent for empathizing with killers, and it might just be driving him insane. Hannibal swoops in to help, but he has his own deadly agenda. I can't believe I just wrote that terrible sentence.
The Bad: This show is disgusting. The creators do not believe in the Hitchcock approach. What you do not see is not scarier than what you do see because you do not not see anything. The effects of every sick and twisted serial killing are shown for far more than just a lingering glance. Bodies hung from deer horns, humans used to grow mushrooms, the skin on people's backs peeled up to make wings, humans turned into cellos. I don't know who is coming up with this stuff, but it's gross, and I can't believe NBC has allowed these images to be shown on television. Also, as immediately sure as this show is about its goals and how it aims to achieve them, there are a few minor signals that this is Hannibal's first year on television. The most major sign is a subplot involving a chief character's wife. She is diagnosed with cancer, and the couple struggle with how to approach their changed future. Halfway through the season, though, her character is completely dropped and never mentioned again. Whether this is due to the actress not being available, or the show just being more interested in doing other things, the sudden change in gears is noticeable.
The Good: I mentioned it above, but this show knows exactly what it wants to do, and how it wants to do it. I also mentioned the show's unrelenting gore, as well, but the nastiness comes with a purpose. As case after grows darker and darker, Graham falls further into madness. The murderous insanity peaks in episode nine, as the FBI team investigates an enormous totem pole made of decomposing human bodies. It is at this point that Graham completely disassociates, and, instigated by Hannibal, really begins to lose touch with reality. By this point, Hannibal's world has achieved a feeling of total depravity--a place where things cannot be anymore wrong, and yet one that shows no signs of getting better. As thick as this sense of darkness is, the show gets kudos for never allowing it to be compromised. Speaking of the C-word, Hannibal deserves accolades for such a non-compromising look at a sociopath's mind. The reason Hannibal can prey so well on those around him is because those people have the expectation that Hannibal is playing by the same rules they are. He isn't. He is not a human following a conscience, but a self-perceived god satisfying his curiosity. The show never wavers from Hannibal's true nature to make him more likeable or charming. This is someone who feeds human flesh to those who consider him a friend. This is not a man. While many other shows would try to make Hannibal the cannibal with a heart of gold, this particular show has a full understanding of sociopath behavior. Any time Hannibal does something good, the show (when you are reviewing a show where the main character's name is also the title, you have to say "the show" a lot) makes clear it isn't because that thing is the particular right thing to do, but because he wants to satisfy his own aims. While the vast majority of sociopaths do not kill and eat people, they do only do good things to satisfy their own agendas--"the right thing" isn't something that exists for them. Hannibal's agenda is testing Will Graham, and the psychological warfare and manipulation Dr. Lecter wages is some of the most complex ever seen on television--all because he is simply curious about what Graham will do. Mads Mikkelsen's portrayal of the titular character is a stunning reversal of his very human roles in Danish cinema. Mikkelsen is slimy and terrifying, yet can effortlessly turn on the charm Dr. Lecter uses to deceive those around him. Hugh Dancy does stunning work as a good man losing his mind. Laurence Fishburne, as Special Agent in Charge, Jack Crawford, is stellar as a driving, distant father figure to Graham. Gillian Anderson, who starred in a show whose darker episodes were certainly a progenitor for some of the things found here, is intriguing as Hannibal's psychiatrist. The show is lavishly shot, a waking nightmare, and the special effects team do groundbreaking work in disgusting. The two elements mentioned in the previous sentence are top-notch enough that there's an upcoming art book devoted to them.
In the end, the first season of Hannibal perfectly balances its "ARE THEY EVER GONNA CATCH THIS GUY?!" suspense with incredible performances, imaginative twists, and a pervasive, enveloping atmosphere of hopelessness and evil. It's more fun than a game of skin marbles.