Best TV of the Decade, No. 18: “Hannibal”

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Unless Viggo Mortensen teaching Mahershala Ali how to eat fried chicken strikes you as offensive enough to be terrifying, Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film in history to win a Best Picture Oscar. Adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris, the movie premiered to rave reviews in 1991, and is now considered one of the finest horror films ever crafted.

The most celebrated aspect of the film was Hannibal Lecter, the villainous mastermind played with gusto by Anthony Hopkins. Though Hannibal had made his debut in the first Red Dragon novel (and his first onscreen appearance in 1986’s Manhunter), Silence of the Lambs vaulted him to worldwide fame, and lay the groundwork for several more films in the 2000s. Responses ranged from modestly positive (the Red Dragon film) to cripplingly negative (Hannibal Rising).

So by the time NBC announced that they would be producing a Hannibal TV series, several critical pundits were hesitant. The character of Hannibal was some twenty years past his heyday, and could we really trust a broadcast network to do the character justice?

But it turned out that, in addition to human flesh and intestines, the new Hannibal would end up devouring a lot of our time.

Created by oddball extraordinaire Bryan Fuller (the mind behind Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls), Hannibal premiered in April 2013 and ran for three cable-length seasons. The choice to do 13-episode arcs was not entirely network-mandated – though aired on NBC, the series was produced and owned by Gaumont Television, a French company with tastes that leaned more to the brief and binge-able. (Their other work includes Netflix shows like Narcos and Hemlock Grove.) The independent production, as well as a 10 PM airtime, allowed Hannibal to get away with content that most network dramas would never dream of.

The show starred Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, a criminal profiler with a gift for getting inside the heads of the demented and murderous. Assisting him in his endeavors were boss Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne), psychologist Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), and CSI Beverly Katz (Hetienne Park). Oh, and supposed friend of the force and noted food lover Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).

Though its seasons were briefer than the typical network drama, Hannibal moved inexorably slowly. The show followed a formula not unlike many crime dramas – a killer-of-the-week format, with a larger plot building behind the scenes – but took greater advantage of its setting and aesthetics. Many of the decade’s best shows were centered on character – Hannibal was centered on atmosphere.

And lord, what atmosphere. The show is among the most gorgeous series ever made for television, a sumptuous visual feast of beautifully horrific imagery. Though the show depicts victims in the aftermath of violence, it is rarely graphic or bloody. (NBC, remember?) Instead, the show understands that the value of horror is chiefly psychological, allowing our minds to connect the dots between “Before” and “After.” Cinematography, too, is phenomenal throughout, with gorgeous backdrops in locales ranging from Minnesota to France. (Cinematographer James Hawkinson did not receive any Emmy attention for his work on Hannibal, though he later struck gold for his work on The Man in the High Castle.)

But although Hannibal was a visual-dominated show, it didn’t want for lack of good characters. The relationship between Graham and Lecter – whether viewed through an adversarial or subtextually romantic lens – is fascinating to watch unfold, as each man attempts to get inside the head of the other. Dancy and Mikkelsen give astonishingly vivid performances, with Mikkelsen in particular making lines about “having friends for dinner” feel stark and chilling.

The first two seasons of Hannibal are among the most artful TV of the decade, and not merely on the broadcast networks. It’s only when the show reached its third and final season that the problems began to show (and its potential ranking on this list began to slide).

It’s not that Season Three is bad, exactly – it features some gorgeous Paris visuals and some of the most vividly creepy imagery in the series. But the already slow pacing drags to a snail’s level, as the show spends far too much time unspooling the consequences of the (admittedly spectacular) Season Two finale. Things pick up slightly in the season’s second half, as the show tries to incorporate the Red Dragon book (with Richard Armitage in fine form as Francis Dolarhyde, but oddly enough, it suffers from the opposite problem, moving too quickly and feeling too traditional by TV drama standards (as well as leaning too heavily on the graphic violence the first two seasons avoided). It’s a weird dichotomy of two mini-arcs that don’t connect much to one another, being haphazardly crammed into one season.

Since the show’s end, much has been speculated about a potential revival. Although Amazon (which has exclusive streaming rights) has not expressed interest in a fourth season, fans hold out hope that perhaps someday, the brains of Graham and Lecter will clash once again.

Personally, I can’t say I’m too interested in a fourth season of the show. Not necessarily because of the flaws in the third season (which culminated in a cliffside climax and an unsettling stinger), but because of the sheer novelty of this series airing on the network that, contemporaneous to the show’s run, gave us Bad Judge and The Mysteries of Laura. Few TV shows in history have been as auterial as Hannibal, and I daresay that none of those few have existed on network television.

So I’ll happily accept grant the show a lower-end spot on the list, and could even argue that it deserves to be ranked even higher.

Tune in tomorrow for the 17th-best show of the decade, which taught us to appreciate the value of subtitles.

The List So Far

20. Person of Interest
19. Justified

5 thoughts on “Best TV of the Decade, No. 18: “Hannibal””

  1. Hannibal is another one that just missed my list (and potentially should have made it thinking on it a bit more). Part of the problem is I never actually finished the show because of how esoteric Season 3 was getting, and part of the problem was I only moderately liked most of season one.

    That being said, if I were to pick a best episode of the decade, it might be the Season 2 finale Mizumono. That was an absolute stellar end to a season that paid off two years worth of careful buildup on a lot of levels.

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    1. If the show had ended after “Mizumono,” Hannibal would be in serious consideration for the Top 10. Longer shows may have more opportunities to broaden their horizons than shorter ones, but they also risk going off the rails.

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      1. The fact that the entire main cast survives definitely guts its impact. Nonetheless, it’s so well done that I have to concur with Scott-‘Mizumono’ is one of the most perfect season finales ever, and in the top 5 episodes of this decade.

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  2. I went back and watched some of the third season again. Just to make sure I wasn’t being too harsh on it. Maybe it wasn’t as dull and pretentious as I remembered it being. No….it was actually worse. I really, really dislike season three, and it would drag down the placement of this show big time. Had it ended with ‘Mizumono’, I think it would be top ten material.

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  3. I actually enjoyed both halves of the third season. I liked the pacing and imagery in the first half and how this show’s version of Red Dragon was handled in the second half. And I think both halves work together as the overall arc of Will’s struggle to achieve closure with Hannibal from murder to rejection to murder-suicide.

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