Number 1: Hannibal
‘Hannibal’ details the early days of renowned psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter’s involvement with the FBI’s Behavioural Science unit. When department head Jack Crawford calls in Will Graham, an emotionally fragile profiler, to help investigate a serial murder he also enlists Lecter to both assist and counsel Graham. When Graham begins to suspect that the erudite, educated and cultured veneer of the psychiatrist hides something more sinister, a battle of wits begins that will have far reaching consequences for all.
NBC approached Bryan Fuller, creator of ‘Heroes’ and the kooky ‘Pushing Daisies’, to write a pilot for a series based on their Thomas Harris property ‘Red Dragon’. Such was the strength of the script he submitted that the pilot process was bypassed and the network immediately commissioned a full season of thirteen episodes. Supporting the show’s horror credentials, ‘Hard Candy’ director David Slade was brought on board to direct the series premiere and to serve as executive producer. Acting as both a straight adaptation of elements of the Lecter story, and a ret-con of others, the show uses ‘Red Dragon’ as the basis for the first season. When the show was commissioned for a second run, more diverse elements began to be introduced, some unique to the show itself and some retooled and revised from the Harris canon. Despite owning the entire rights to the novel ‘Red Dragon’, the production does not hold the rights to others; characters who appear from both prequel novel ‘Hannibal Rising’ and last in the original trilogy ‘Hannibal’ are rented on an episode by episode basis. Whilst this has angered some purists, especially when events and characters appear out of sequence, this is one of the show’s real advantages; the audience for the Harris books is huge but, whilst there is a degree of glee in seeing characters leap off the page, they are constantly kept on their toes by Fuller’s revisionist approach.
Despite having a solid resume British actor Hugh Dancy was perhaps most well-known for his roles in forgettable fluff ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ and the atrocious ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’. However, there is little doubt that he has serious acting chops after seeing his performance as Will Graham. Part emotionally fragile outcast, part savant, he is the emotional centre of the show. Able to put himself in the mind of deviant killers but unable to withdraw from them completely, he is a sympathetic and engaging character. It is Dancy’s physicality that adds the most surprising depth to the character; Graham’s bundle of neuroses and nervous energy is vividly brought to life by the actor’s tics, tremors and subtle facial changes. FBI profiling guru Jack Crawford is played by Laurence Fishburne – star of too many to mention – and is one of the series’ bigger changes. In the novels, he is an older man whereas in the show he cuts a commanding and hulking figure, an asset played with in the episodes that bookend the show’s second season. Love interest is introduced in the form of Dr Alana Bloom, played by Caroline Dhavernas, who has professional relationships with Graham and Lecter, and who is both convincingly strident and emotionally invested in the events as they unfold. After considering many different actors for the title role, David Tennant rumoured to be foremost among them, Danish actor – most famous perhaps as Le Chiffre in Bond movie ‘Casino Royale’ – Mads Mikkelsen was cast. It was a decision that turned out to be genius. Moving away from the Oscar-winning pantomime stylings of the Anthony Hopkins version of the character in 1991’s ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Fuller intended a more nuanced and rounded Lecter. A man of great sophistication, cultured, charming and erudite, Lecter is the perfect gentleman; like much of his life however, it is artifice, designed to mask the dead-eyed monster beneath. In Mikkelsen, Fuller found his star; his stilted tone, his implacable expression, and his confident and controlling demeanour are all perfect for the role but, as with the rest of the series, it is the smaller details that are most important. It is a performance that serves two purposes: on one hand, his subtle movements, soft shifts in expression, and pregnant pauses hint at the darkness within to fans of the character; on the other, he is utterly convincing as what he seems to be on the surface, so much so that the uninitiated would have little clue as to the character’s true identity. In short, Mikkelsen’s turn is breathtaking to such an extraordinary degree that it is impossible to imagine Lecter in any other way. Fuller also peppers the show with appearances from some very famous faces from the horror genre: Eddie Izzard as recurrent Abel Gideon is gruesomely entertaining; Lance Henriksen appears in a one episode role; ‘Boardwalk Empire’ star Michael Pitt and ‘American Mary’ herself Katharine Isabelle appear as the Verger siblings, notorious figures from the show’s source material; and TV legend Gillian Anderson has a small but important role as Bedelia Du Maurier, a woman with the dubious honour of attempting to be Lecter’s psychotherapist.
Much like Lecter himself, the visual presentation of the show is one of its most important features. Lecter’s home, a key location in the show, is an exercise in opulence; a huge Gothic dining area, complete with self-sustaining indoor herb garden, flows into his office, stacked to from ceiling to floor with books and classic artwork. He has a music room in which he composes harpsichord music, and, of course, a beautiful minimalist kitchen. It is the Gothic, in the truest sense of the word, updated for modern consumption. The show also works in dense metaphors that manifest as hallucinatory imagery; interpreting such diverse elements as clocks, a wild stag, and a pervasive black demon as symbols for various plot machinations gives the show a unique, disorienting, and striking visual style.
Despite the overarching narrative of the team’s investigation into the serial killer known as ‘The Chesapeake Ripper’, the show also has frequent individual cases; the best way to view these are as ‘monster of the week’ episodes against Hannibal’s ‘monster of every week’ arc. These really showcase the creativity at work behind the scenes and provide some of the most iconic and grotesque sites in the genre. Killers who mutilate victims to resemble angels, who use comatose victims as living fertiliser, or who use them to create musical instruments all appear, alongside bodies sewn together into a giant eye, a human totem pole made of victims in various stages of decomposition, and a women segmented lengthways and stored in giant microscope slides; in an era when so much of the genre, both theatrical and on television, is so watered down and tame, ‘Hannibal’ blazes a trail for others to follow. It operates at the absolute fringes of what is permissible on television; Fuller himself often outlines plans with the FCC to get guidelines about how far they will allow the envelope to be pushed. Ahead of its time in many ways, no other show has ever come close to the grotesqueries that ‘Hannibal’ beautifully, and gleefully, portrays.
As you would expect given the notorious proclivities of its eponymous character, food plays a key role in the show. Hannibal is a gourmet of the highest order, a skilled chef and gastronome. Many episodes include sequences of the character preparing and cooking a meal; often juxtaposed with scenes of crimes being discovered, it is one of the show’s true sources of horror. Many of the key interpersonal moments, many of the intellectual battles between Lecter and Graham, happen around Hannibal’s banqueting table and there is lascivious joy for the audience as the meals are served. Whilst the ingredients are often vaguely defined, there is perverse pleasure in knowing what all the characters but Hannibal himself do not. The show takes its food credentials seriously; award winning chef Jose Andres acts as a culinary consultant on the show, adding a worrying air of credibility to proceedings, and in a macabre nod to what most of the audience already know, each episode has a food related title – Season One episodes are named after French dishes, Season Two after Japanese ones.
‘Hannibal’ is a massive critical success, achieving almost universally positive reviews. However, the show does not have huge ratings in the US. A rabid fanbase is in operation and a wealth of web-based content, from intelligent analysis to amusing memes and fan-fiction, can be easily found via search engine. Perhaps the show’s graphic violence is the reason that it does not have the mainstream approval it richly deserves, perhaps its Gothic sensibilities, perhaps even its unique visual trappings. In danger of cancellation at the end of Season Two, NBC mercifully showed unexpected temerity and renewed ‘Hannibal’ for a third run; Fuller himself has, assuming an agreement to the rights of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ can be reached, plans to run the show for seven full series. One can only hope he gets the opportunity.
‘Hannibal’ is woefully underappreciated. Any genre fan worth their salt should already be watching it or should be ordering it at their earliest convenience. It is a unique experience; genuinely terrifying, endlessly surprising, dark, violent and horrific, yet subtly nuanced and beautiful. It has exceptional performances from a very talented cast; despite their best efforts however, even they are outshone by Mads Mikkelsen who, in tackling one of horror’s most memorable and iconic figures, has completely eclipsed all other versions. In his hands, Hannibal Lecter is more than a preening fop, more than the tastes for which he is famed, more than the pantomime caricature of previous iterations; he has become what, at heart, he always should have been – truly the most terrifying figure in modern horror. ‘Hannibal’ is the show genre fans have always cried out for; creative, intelligent, prosaic, yet unashamedly dark and gloriously brutal. It stands head and shoulders above all other television, modern or classic, on every conceivable level. How good is ‘Hannibal’? It is so much more than quality genre programming – it is simply the best show in any genre the medium has ever seen. Brutal, brilliant, shocking, and absolutely the most essential viewing of the last thirty years. It’s that good, and is fully deserving of top spot on this list.