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Television review: 'Hannibal' drains the mirth out of Lecter

This prequel to 'Silence of the Lambs' takes several episodes before finally gaining any traction, but tweaks to the main characters' personas aren't for the better.

April 04, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Mads Mikkelsen is Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC's "Hannibal."
Mads Mikkelsen is Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC's "Hannibal." (Brooke Palmer, NBC )

NBC sent out five episodes of its "Silence of the Lambs" prequel "Hannibal," and although the reasons to stop watching (when in doubt, impale a woman!) too often outweighed the reasons to continue (Hugh Dancy, tracked by a dangerous dream deer), I swallowed my bile and soldiered on. And indeed, Episode 5 proved an epiphany. No spoilers here, but it costars Eddie Izzard, whose natural gift for twinkling malice threw everything into perspective.

The problem with "Hannibal" is not the graphic violence or the absurd back-story tweaks — Dancy's Will Graham is no longer just a super-great FBI profiler with a photographic memory, he's a shivering, night-sweating, natural-born empath, whatever the heck that is — or even the fact that it is rather late to a very crowded serial-killer crime scene.

No, the problem with "Hannibal" is Hannibal. As written by Bryan Fuller and played by Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal Lecter, therapist-turned-cannibalistic-serial-killer-turned-crime consultant and possibly one of the greatest characters of 20th century popular literature, is just a big drag.

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First of all, he's so creepy looking, with his pedophillic, English-teacher stare and finicky foodie ways, that any empath worth his salt would take one look and holler: "Serial killer!"

Attempting, perhaps, to distance this version from the iconic portrayal by Anthony Hopkins, Mikkelsen plays Lecter almost completely devoid of humor. Which is a huge problem. The mirth in Hopkins' eye as he dropped his famous one-liners — "Oh, and senator, just one more thing: Love the suit" — both upped the shiver factor and made the monster human.

This "Hannibal" relies instead on one big inside joke: the audience's knowledge of the killer's proclivities. He glides around menacingly, drizzling sauces, sipping wine and serving people exquisite meals of vaguely identified meat that everyone dutifully eats, cuing the audience to laugh uncomfortably. But no matter how many dried and fresh figs are involved, cannibalism is just gross, which is why Harris originally, and wisely, used Hannibal like tarragon — sparingly.

It was only after "Silence of the Lambs" won its Oscars that the novelist was persuaded to make Lecter a main character, with dubious results. No one wants a tarragon pie.

But Lecter is what lifts "Hannibal" from being just another Detective With Something Extra, so Fuller throws him around with abandon.

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Hewing more closely to the back story laid out in "Manhunter," the film version of Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon," than that of the original text, Fuller introduces Graham to Lecter through Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), head of the FBI's Behavioral Unit. Crawford sees Graham, with his "on the spectrum"-like abilities to see through the eyes of a killer, as the ultimate secret weapon.

Indeed, watching Graham take one glance at a bloody victim and rattle off the criminal's innermost thoughts without so much as a marked-up white board or telltale tobacco ash to go on is the kind of "extraordinary" that shares a porous border with "absurd."

As all signs of higher intelligence and deductive powers are required to do nowadays, this power torments Graham. Tor-ments him. Not only is he increasingly haunted at night by visions of a full-antlered buck, it is assumed by all and sundry that should he get too close to the crimes — "Don't let him get too close," warns fellow consultant and potential love interest Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas); "I won't let him get too close," reassures Crawford — Graham will become a serial killer himself.

So, irony of ironies and isn't it thrilling and delicious, Crawford, ignoring the fact that Lecter looks like he wandered in from the set of "The Vampire Diaries," convinces the well-regarded therapist to join the team and keep an eye on Graham. Which he does, not-so-inconspicuously coaching him to shed the trappings of external expectation (i.e., the non-serial-killing life) and dropping clues to his own identity like human-sweetbread crumbs in the forest.

"I don't find you that interesting," Graham says, shoveling in the "protein scramble" Lecter has served him while dismissing any suggestion of future friendship. "You will," Lecter answers (cue again those knowing chuckles).

If nothing else, having a cannibal on the team ups the crime-scene ante, and "Hannibal" attempts to separate itself from the competition — "Dexter," "Criminal Minds," "The Following," even "Bones" — by conjuring criminals so disturbed they require the occasional use of computer graphics, which gets surprisingly tiresome in its calculated high-art horror.

For fans of "Silence of the Lambs" there is some pleasure in gathering the canonical Easter eggs planted throughout the series, but for the most part "Hannibal" suffers from the same fatal flaw as its main character: It takes itself so seriously that it's no fun at all.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Hannibal'

Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)

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