Quid pro quo, dear Clarice. What was your reaction – be honest now – when it was first announced that a Hannibal Lecter prequel TV show was in the works? A dismissive sigh? An audible groan? A dismissively audible sigh-groan? An angry forum rant about how the character should be left alone? All of the above? All of the above whilst guzzling a nice Chianti?
Such scepticism could be forgiven, of course, given the diminishing nature of Hannibal's screen returns. Like many discerning film connoisseurs, I’m a big champion of both Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the first Lecter film, starring Brian Cox as ‘Lecktor’) and Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence Of The Lambs (which saw Anthony Hopkins propel the character into pop culture consciousness). But after a trio of increasingly disappointing outings - Ridley Scott’s underwhelming Hannibal; Brett Ratner’s uninspired Manhunter re-do Red Dragon; ill-conceived prequel Hannibal Rising – the idea of more was as welcome as the prospect of sharing a room with Multiple Miggs at the Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center.
That's why it's such a delight to report that the pilot for Hannibal is far better than expected. Smart, stylish and well written, it’s a strong start that gets pretty much everything right. Nodding to the franchise's mythology without overdoing it (no ham-handed segues here), the perfectly-named Aperitif is well-judged throughout, doing justice to the characters while remaining its own beast. There are a few brief moments where it feels like things are being over-explained to us, but on the whole it's a tasteful opener. Like all good first instalments, it leaves you hungry for more.
That it does all this is largely thanks to showrunner Bryan Fuller. His credentials? Well, after writing for both Star Trek: Voyager and Deep Space Nine, he created a few quirky cult shows (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies), and co-exec-produced the first season of Heroes (i.e., the season when everyone loved it), which included penning fan-favourite episode Company Man. In the driving seat, Fuller is aided by David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days Of Night), who becomes the latest ‘name’ director to hitch his wagon to a TV show by directing the pilot and thus setting the stylistic template (see also Martin Scorsese with Boardwalk Empire, Michael Mann with Luck, David Fincher with House Of Cards). Evoking Twin Peaks and Stanley Kubrick, Slade captures the psychological murk with a handful of surreal, haunting sequences, which fits the material like one of Buffalo Bill’s custom-made skin-suits.
Set before Manhunter (which we should really start calling Mann-hunter), Hannibal depicts how FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) met psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). Deeply empathic and able to assume other points of view, Will is capable of inhabiting the mindset of a grisly psychopath, a ‘gift’ that Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) wants to use so they can track down a serial killer. Doing so is potentially damaging to Will’s mental state, however, so Crawford enlists the renowned Doctor to keep an eye on him.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. How long can we watch Will – who’s able to understand how killers think - working with Hannibal and yet unaware that he’s a monster? Well firstly, this is what’s interesting about the Graham-Lecter dynamic, because Hannibal’s essentially the one who got under his radar. The one who got away, if you will (even though, technically, he didn’t get away). Secondly, while you might be braced for broad, killer-of-the-week antics which trade on the Lecter name, Fuller has more in store. Reassuringly, he has roughed out several years of plot, with season one as “the bromance” between Will and Hannibal, season two as “the ugly break-up”, and season four as “basically Red Dragon”. Could this mean that season five is Silence Of The Lambs? Let’s hope that for once a Fuller show gets that far.
In an ideal world, something like Hannibal would belong to HBO or Showtime, as opposed to NBC. But if the pilot’s anything to go by, the show feels more like the product of a premium cable channel than a mainstream network, with a 13-episode run planned and no evidence of compromise. While the usual prequel problems present themselves (we know Lecter won’t kill Graham, which removes a certain level of tension), the dance between characters promises to be fascinating.
As the gifted yet haunted Graham (previously essayed by William Petersen and, to lesser effect, Edward Norton), Brit Hugh Dancy is something of a find. He’s a good visual fit for Petersen’s Will; all specs, beard and busy mind. But more importantly, he ensures that the now-familiar brilliant-but-autistic protagonist role is convincing and never gimmicky. Laurence Fishburne also enjoys success as Jack Crawford (previously played by Dennis Farina, Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel), offering his usual deep-bassed presence and bursts of intensity (“USE THE LADIES ROOM!”).
But the real casting hurdle was always going to be Lecter, given how strongly audiences associate Anthony Hopkins with the role. Here, it looks like Fuller and co have found their man. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen might make for a more handsome and less playful Hannibal (no devilish “Love your suit!” lines here), but he’s a compelling screen actor and his take is ideal for this universe. “I don’t find you that interesting.” says Dancy’s Will to Lecter over a protein scramble breakfast. “You will,” replies Mikkelsen’s dapper Doctor. I for one believe him.