Hannibal season two premièred on Sky Living this week, so let’s have a look at this disturbing, atmospheric drama’s first season.
The most striking thing about Hannibal is how it looks. It’s easily one of the most stylish dramas on television. The crime scenes and creepy bits are appropriately dark and dreary, but there are splashes of vibrant colour – the green grass, the blue sky, the blood-red, um, blood – that make even the nastiest murders look oddly beautiful. This jarring contrast is part of what makes the show so unnerving to watch. It also helps that Hannibal has some of the most disgustingly-creative crime scenes ever shown on TV.
The very first episode has a woman impaled on deer horns in a field (an idea that True Detective seems to have nicked for its own case), the second has corpses covered in mushrooms, and later episodes have a couple with their backs flayed open to look like skin wings, and there’s also a totem pole – a fucking totem pole – of corpses. And it’s all framed and filmed in such a way that it looks… nice? Like a painting, or a twisted piece of modern art. It’s horrific, but you can’t look away. I genuinely can’t believe they got away with showing some of this stuff on a non-HBO TV channel. Maybe the television executives were distracted by how pretty it looks.
So, for a show about a psychopathic serial killer, it’s very colourful. Even ordinary, everyday places that normally look mundane and uninteresting are bright and stark and eye-catching. Even some of Hannibal’s meals look appetising, until you remember what they are. Often, the show doesn’t quite look real, it looks like surreal art, or a dream.
Sometimes it is a dream. The visions and nightmares of honorary FBI agent Will Graham, an expert in the methodology of serial killers, occasionally interrupt an otherwise-ordinary scene- a cheap jump-scare, but an effective one.
Will’s special skill is getting into the mind of a killer. He walks onto a crime scene, has a look around, then imagines himself committing the crime, as a way of getting into the actual killer’s head. Knowing how and why killers kill people is a valuable skill for the FBI, but as we see, it doesn’t half mess up your mind. Poor Will is sent to crime scene after crime scene to work his magic and solve the case, but he can’t sleep at night and images of what he’s seen and imagined haunt him.
Luckily, help is at hand. His boss (Laurence Fishburne) has paired him up with a psychiatrist to help him deal with the stress and the horror of his new job. The psychiatrist is a quiet man, smartly-dressed, with a calm, soothing voice, and an accent that no one can really place. He looks a bit like Le Chiffre. His name is Hannibal Lecter.
Mads Mikkelsen is a very good Hannibal. His performance is not loud or crazy- quite the opposite, in fact. He lies and manipulates and pretends to care about his client, hiding his true madness under a blank, stern face that is damn-near unreadable. Most of the time, he’s in the background, quietly observing, studying, while Will does his stuff, or talks to him during one of their many therapy sessions. The slightest change in his facial expression can reveal so much about his true feelings. It’s difficult to imagine him doing that famous noise Hopkins’ Hannibal does in Silence of the Lambs.
He seems completely ordinary, and it seems completely plausible that none of his colleagues would have any idea that he’s such a psychopath. If his name didn’t rhyme with ‘cannibal’, if it was, say, Dave, you’d never suspect a thing. Though he does let a few ‘I’d love to have your parents for dinner’ jokes slip in now and again.
Hugh Darcy’s Will is also excellent. Jittery, anguished, but determined to do his job, he is the real star of the show. His therapy sessions with Dr Lecter are always a highlight of the episode, and watching him fall victim to Hannibal’s manipulation over the course of the season is heartbreaking, as he slowly becomes a broken man.
Will and Hannibal’s interactions are the real meat of the show, they’re the main course. The horrible-homicide-of-the-week cases are just side-dishes. The killer is almost always obvious and the case is wrapped up fairly quickly, leaving plenty of time for Hannibal and Will to discuss the aftermath and for us to see how much these cases are affecting Will’s already-fragile mental state.
The rest of the cast is good, too, with some great guest stars popping in during the first season (Hey, that’s Gillian Anderson! Hey, that’s… Eddie Izzard? What’s Eddie Izzard doing in this?).
Hannibal, the show and the character, is fascinated with death. How people deal with it, how it affects them mentally, how it can change them. Because of his job, Will is surrounded by death all day, every day, and this is what prompts Hannibal to study him and take him under his wing. It is a dark, dark, show, thematically and sometimes literally. Earlier I praised how bright and vibrant it looks, but now and then the look of the show changes completely to a dull, dark look where the colours are muted and everyone’s face is cast in shadow. It’s another effective contrast.
The main gripe I have with the show is the music. At its best, it’s creepy and strange and works perfectly with the wonderful cinematography to create a tense atmosphere, full of dread and horror. Often, however, it is a loud, wailing pain – literally. I watched Hannibal season one with headphones on and good GOD, when they really ramp up the screeching and the wailing and the – well, I can’t really call it music – the noise, it’s bloody annoying and painful. Hannibal mutters something to Fishburne, Fishburne mutters something to Will, the music is little more than a low, sombre note, Will walks into the house and EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE OH JESUS MY EARS.
What’s worse that nine times out of ten, this is completely unnecessary, usually used to show a scene with a bit of blood in it. Oh no, blood! There’s blood in this house! I’ve never seen something so horrible… except for that one time, in the previous episode. And the episode before that. And the episode before that.
Or it’s used when Hannibal does something a bit creepy – which, as you’d expect, is quite often. It can be good, but it really doesn’t need to be turned up to 11 so much.
(EDIT: In hindsight this criticism was a bit nit-picky. I must confess I’d only actually seen 9 of the13 episodes in Hannibal‘s first season when I wrote this, and after watching the rest I realise that I may have overstated how irritating and noisy the music can be. It’s actually fine, great even, most of the time, but the rare occasion it did go all over-the-top and screechy stood out in my memory and soured my opinion of the soundtrack as a whole.)
The show’s title sequence is a bit rubbish, too. The visuals, as usual, are striking and lovely. Shame it’s accompanied by the show’s theme song, which isn’t really a theme song, just another series of whines.
Still, this show is fantastic and well worth a watch, if you can stomach the gory bits and nightmarish imagery. I hope it stays on the air long enough to get to the plot of the films, as it would be great to see what Mikkelsen’s Hannibal does with that material.
The second season has been getting glowing reviews as it’s aired in America, so it looks like Hannibal, a dark, dreamlike, disgusting drama, is going to get better and better.
Hannibal season one is on DVD and Blu-Ray now, and if you have Sky you can watch season one On Demand. Season two is on Sky Living on Tuesdays at 10pm.