Hannibal shouldn't have worked. Creator Bryan Fuller was known for quirky and colorful shows like Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, and it seemed doubtful he would be able to handle a serious drama. Worse, every adaption of Thomas Harris' Hannibal books since Silence of the Lambs had been more unwatchable than the last, and no one was asking for another. Yet Hannibal quietly become the most original drama on TV—and now it's being axed.
There are a litany of reasons to catch up on the show, now at the beginning of its third and last season. It's flat-out gorgeous to look at, with production design among the best on TV—or even in film. Each murder is staged like a grotesque statue, each meal served by Hannibal is so beautifully done that it makes human meat seem appetizing. The music is seriously unnerving. And Mads Mikkelsen has created a charismatic, dangerous Hannibal Lecter that will be the measure of the character in years to come.
The pilot opens on criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) investigating a home-invasion murder. He closes his eyes. A bar of light swings back and forth across the screen, and Will now understands the killer. He describes the murder as if he had been in the room. This is Will's "talent." Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), head of the behavioral science unit at the FBI, wants Will to assist him with hunting down serial killers. Knowing that peering into the minds of monsters is psychically damaging, Jack enlists a psychiatrist to help Will cope. Enter Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who councils Will even as he participates in the murders his patient investigates. Their relationship gets, well, complicated.
Admittedly, it sounds just like every other stale network drama. But watch one episode and you'll see an exceptionally daring and creatively vibrant show. And if you think police procedurals today are gruesome, Hannibal tops them all: a killer mounts his victims on deer antlers after eating their internal organs and another pulls back the flesh on his victims' backs to pose them like angels in a religious tableau. One of Hannibal's masterworks features a corpse grafted with trees, plants, and blooming flowers. It's as if the show were written by a Law & Order writer obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch and Dario Argento.
As the season goes on, it demonstrates a gift for the surreal that makes certain episodes feel like nightmares. One memorable hour features Will Graham's bout with encephalitis, which struck just as the work was getting to be too much for him. It swells his brain and causes him to hallucinate. He tries to track a killer, but is beset by visions of crashing waves and Jack speaking from a dark room filled with antlers. The storyline is feverish, violent, and eerie. It sticks with you.
By the latest episodes Hannibal has emerged as a show like nothing else, mostly because its creators fearlessly ignored the rules. Hannibal is formally playful where most "quality" TV shows are conservative, grand where they're minimalist, and darkly funny when they're dour. It provides relief in a television landscape filling up too quickly with dead girls and sad, sad detectives. And you still have a chance to see some of it before it's over.
Photos by Photo: Sophie Giraud/NBC