A lot of thought has gone into NBC's "Hannibal." Maybe too much thought.
But that's better than the other option. And it gives viewers plenty to chew on as they mull the fate of its cannibal antihero and his troubled nemesis.
Hannibal Lecter's world has always teemed with life, death, and the animalistic passions in between, embodied by death's head moths, ravenous pigs, those poor lambs, and, of course, the man-eating psychologist. "Hannibal" builds out that world with deer that double as accessories to murder, fungi that want desperately to connect, and still more macabre insects.
The new series from "Pushing Daisies" creator Bryan Fuller is a sort of prequel to "Red Dragon," the 1981 Thomas Harris novel that introduced us to Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham. The story spawned the movie adaptation "Manhunter," a 1980s time capsule that is nonetheless engrossing; the unnecessary 2002 remake "Red Dragon"; and the flat-out flawless "Silence of the Lambs." It also led to the not-bad 2001 film "Hannibal" and 2007's dull "Hannibal Rising."
The TV series "Hannibal" fits into a time period somehow unexplored in any of those films or the novels that inspired them. By the time we met Lecter in "Red Dragon," he was a middle-aged prisoner, long ago locked up for murdering young women and eating them.
The delicious idea behind "Hannibal" is that we're meeting him when he's still young, free, and full of life – mostly other people's lives.
"Hannibal" is a prequel, like A&E's new "Bates Motel," that takes place in the present day despite occurring before a story we first heard decades ago.
The time-shift turns out to be a great idea. It signals to us that what we're about to see isn’t necessarily part of the established Lecter canon, and may reduce some of the burden of trying to live up to "Silence of the Lambs."
"Hannibal" could have leaned on the Lecter legacy by just letting its titular character, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, make culinary puns and eat people from time to time. With his Hitler haircut, fastidious suits and slightly difficult-to-follow accent, Mikkelsen's Hannibal would demand your attention even if you didn't know about his unusual hobbies.
But the show puts Lecter in the background at the beginning – which turns out to be another good idea. It opens with the focus on Graham, played by an outstanding Hugh Dancy.
Graham is an FBI profiler – he's too unstable to be an agent – with a gift for imagining murders through the eyes of those who commit them. Would you believe he has a lot of bad dreams?
In "Silence," Lecter famously taunted Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling about her girlhood failure to save lambs from a slaughter. It's dogs, not lambs, who have Graham's sympathy on "Hannibal." We're told that he has both signs of Asperger's and "pure empathy," which may explain why he has trouble relating to people but lots of mercy for strays. He also begins to dream of deer, because of a new serial killer's particularly horrible ritual with his victims.
The focus on Graham, counterintuitive as it may seem given the show's title, is the best idea on "Hannibal." Graham, not Lecter, seems unbalanced. The celebrated psychologist is summoned by FBI mastermind Jack Crawford (a not-so-good Laurence Fishburne) to take care of the brittle Graham.
That setup alone would be fodder for a richly entertaining show. In one scene, we watch Lecter serve Graham a protein scramble that probably contains human lungs as the two discuss their situation.
"I don't find you that interesting," says Graham.
"You will," Lecter gently replies.
It's a moment full of all the dark understatement that makes Hannibal so amusing at his best. ("I'm having an old friend for dinner," he once told Clarice, while preparing to kill and eat his former jailer.)
Mikkelsen gets a few such moments to shine, but he's at an early disadvantage, since he's playing a man trying to seem unsuspicious. Dancy has the meatier role: he's barely hanging on. Dancy's take on the character recalls William Peterson's in "Manhunter," but Dancy is more vulnerable.
He makes us admire Graham's gifts even as we pity him. And not just because we know he's walking blindly into Lecter's mental maw.
Dancy's talents are most clear in a moment with Fishburne in an FBI men's room. It's that rarest of scenes where one actor is very good and the other pretty bad. Dancy's every breath and tic feel authentic, but Fishburne tries to blow the doors off. He sets his over-the-top tone by screaming, "Use the ladies room!" at someone who walks in on their talk.
"Hannibal" has several moments that feel similarly off, in part because it's trying to do so much. Its fresh ideas include artisanal killings aplenty, involving antlers, fungus, and sometimes plain-old guns. One of the show's many intelligent touches is how jarring it is every time one of those guns is fired. For all the nightmarish violence – and there's a lot of it – it doesn't treat death lightly.
Sometimes the killings are too hard to keep straight, especially when Lecter gets in on them. This isn't a procedural, thank God, where Graham and Lecter work together to solve a crime each week. Instead, the crimes bleed across episodes and help build characters. It's a challenging approach, but one that deserves time to play out.
And again: better too many ideas than too few. Fox's new "The Following," which also takes lots of inspiration from Harris' stories, borrows the blood and guts from "Silence," but forgets the brain and heart.
The first two Lecter books are all about empathy. Lecter understands everything, but feels little. Graham and Starling understand little, but feel too much. Starling cracks the Buffalo Bill case not with her analytical prowess, but by knowing where to look for secrets in a young girl's room.
"Hannibal" also rewards those who look closely. At one point, for example, someone points out that Graham is an expert at using insects to detect time of death. Petersen's CSI character, Gil Grissom, did just that on "CSI." (And Fishburne replaced Petersen on "CSI." Maybe Lecter could tell us what it all represents.)
Director David Slade makes sure to provide lots of alternately gorgeous and ghastly visuals, and the show is already one of the best cast on television: Every actor has a unique and interesting look, giving the show a more realistic tone. Even some of the small roles are filled with great performers, notably "Kids in the Hall" comic genius Scott Thompson as — what else? — a CSI.
This time out, he doesn't crack any jokes.