In 2012, the actor Mandy Patinkin explained his decision to leave the hit CBS show Criminal Minds after just two seasons. “I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year,” Patinkin said. “It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.” A procedural centered on a team of FBI criminal profilers, Criminal Minds ran for 15 seasons on a potent blend of voyeurism and violence. Sensationalism is great entertainment, though perhaps not so great for its performers, or its audience and their dulled synapses.
By all accounts, Hannibal should be in the same boat. The three-season NBC drama shares with Criminal Minds both a setting—the Bureau’s much-vaunted Behavioral Science Unit, or BSU—and a keen interest in serial killers. Created by Pushing Daisies’ Bryan Fuller, Hannibal is often a lurid montage of corpses turned into objets d’art: mounted on antlers, suspended on slides, turned into instruments, posed like an actual Botticelli. It even combines the sadistic procedural with another disheartening trope: the often-cynical use of IP, which has led to many misfires that swap recognition for innovation. (Remember when ABC made a TV show out of a time-traveling Jack the Ripper?) Hannibal took on nothing less than the most famous fictional serial killer of all time, conceived by writer Thomas Harris and immortalized by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs.
And yet the show turned out to be a Trojan horse—or rather, to quote one of its most famous lines, a social worker sewn inside of a horse. From 2013 to 2015, Hannibal told a humanist story about a sociopathic cannibal, using the structure of a network procedural to counter its worst impulses. No wonder it didn’t last very long. But now that it’s available to stream on Netflix, maybe the show will finally reach the audience it deserves.
Title aside, Hannibal isn’t really about Hannibal Lecter, the supremely dedicated epicure played with chilling poise by ex–Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen. It’s about Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a Harris character not nearly as famous as Clarice Starling but who serves as her blueprint. (Graham is the protagonist of Red Dragon, the first novel to feature Lecter and the immediate predecessor of Silence of the Lambs.) Hannibal’s Graham is the opposite of the series’s namesake, an almost supernatural empath who hunts down serial killers by inhabiting their points of view. It’s now a cliché across crime fiction to point out the parallels between cops and criminals; Hannibal takes that analogy and makes it brutally literal.
Dancy’s Graham is a tangled ball of nerves, always on edge and never at ease. He’s visibly worn down by the work he excels at, so crushed by the psychic burden of evildoers’ emotions that he can’t make eye contact with other people—only his pack of adopted stray dogs. Graham’s fragility only ups the impact of Hannibal’s signature visual device. As Graham reconstructs a killer’s logic, he literally embodies them, casting himself in flashbacks to elaborate plans and slashed throats. Will Graham, the character, isn’t a killer. But we watch the same actor play both a sensitive soul and a series of psychopaths, a 180 as disturbing as any grisly tableau. Graham concludes every session with the same catchphrase: “This is my design.”
Hannibal boasts an impressive roster of supporting players and guest stars: Laurence Fishburne, Eddie Izzard, Gina Torres, Gillian Anderson, a pre-gubernatorial-run Cynthia Nixon. But the show is essentially a two-hander, exploring the bond that forms between Hannibal and his colleague, patient, friend, adversary, pupil, prey, and, ultimately, true love. Hannibal holds humanity in the utmost contempt, viewing people as literal livestock to be led to the slaughter. Will is the exception, earning Hannibal’s respect, interest, and Satanic need to possess and corrupt. “I let you see me,” he spits mid-confrontation, with real betrayal. “Know me.” Hannibal never got the chance to plan out a proper conclusion, but in its place, it went out with a fitting final image: Will and Hannibal, locked in a bloody embrace.
The central romance of Hannibal is not an explicit one; “A love relationship does not have to be a sexual relationship to be a powerful relationship,” Fuller argued after the finale. Other shows, like Sherlock, have been charged with queerbaiting for their own stubbornly platonic pairings, but Will and Hannibal’s connection is entirely in keeping with Hannibal’s elliptical, oblique style. (Unlike Sherlock, Hannibal was created by a gay man, who once demanded a sex scene be reshot for anatomical accuracy.) What truly set Hannibal apart at the time, and what’s kept the Fannibal army going in the half decade since, was its total mastery of tone—a starkly different one from its genre peers.
The descriptors Hannibal brings to mind sound nothing like a show about law enforcement: “nightmarish”; “baroque”; “fantastical”; “dreamlike.” That is very much, to quote Graham, Hannibal’s design. Hannibal keeps some procedural staples, like a trio of snarky lab techs who could be on loan from CSI. But it sheds them as it goes on, leaning ever further into the surreal. On Hannibal, killers are more likely to turn their victims into elaborate mushroom farms than sexually assault them, a common procedural crutch that Fuller consciously avoided. “I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals,” he explained in 2015. “You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be shorthand for that kind of violation.” On Hannibal, rape simply doesn’t exist.
Hannibal’s imagery, like its broad-strokes plot, is true to the spirit of Harris’s books, which the show chops up and remixes over several seasons. Maimed millionaire Mason Verger and William Blake fan Francis Dolarhyde are major antagonists; the third season sees Hannibal escape to Florence and work as a museum curator, a post-Clarice development in the books. Working with a stable of regular directors—including David Slade, Tim Hunter, and Vincenzo Natali—Hannibal developed a fitting vessel for its gallery of rogues. Characters hallucinate mythological creatures and inky oceans of blood. Brian Reitzell’s score, with its cascading drums and atonal chimes, is appropriately abstract. The lighting is desaturated and high-contrast; Hannibal’s alias would call it chiaroscuro. To use the food metaphor that runs through the entire show, Hannibal has an impeccable sense of mise en place.
Speaking of: the food! Every episode of Hannibal is named for a term from French, Japanese, or Italian cuisine, depending on the season. Superstar chef José Andrés served as a culinary consultant, and it’s easy to see the results—and the prodigious efforts of food stylist Janice Poon—in the elaborate meals Hannibal prepares for his guests, all closer to sculpture than sustenance. Mikkelsen’s Lecter is more refined and less overtly campy than Hopkins’s, but the irony that underscores every meal is squarely in the tradition of eating livers with a nice glass of Chianti. Hannibal may be melodramatic, even verging on overwrought, but it’s never without a sense of humor. (“I didn’t poison you, Tobias. I wouldn’t do that to the food.”) Along with an unerring commitment to the bit, that self-awareness is what sells the frankly ridiculous dialogue: “The teacup that I shattered dared to come together”; “We’re orchestrations of carbon”; “I find the trout to be a very Nietzschean fish.”
It’s a miracle that Hannibal even made it to air in the risk-averse environs of broadcast TV, let alone survived for three seasons—and only then thanks to some dirt-cheap distribution rights. In its ability to both master and transcend the network procedural, Hannibal’s only rival was The Good Wife, which concluded around the same time. (Dancy currently stars in spinoff The Good Fight; it appears he has a type.) Five years later, Fannibals have held out hope for a revival from some white-knight streaming service. A back catalog on Netflix is hardly a pickup, but it’s also a necessary first step. We’ll soon see whether Hannibal’s second life has a less gruesome end than its first.
In an earlier version of this piece, the subheadline misspelled Bryan Fuller’s name.