I Myself Can Not: “Pilot”

(Kate and I have been friends for a long time, about ten years, give or take, and since 2005 I don’t know if we’ve gone a whole conversation without some reference to the ‘Hannibal’ franchise. So when I decided to write about the new NBC series, it seemed right to invite her along.)

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JASON: Can I say right up front that I thought this would be terrible? When I first heard about Hanibal, I pictured a rote police procedural about an FBI agent and his weeeeeeird partner, with characters from the ‘Hannibal’ franchise slotted into it. I figured there would be the requisite references to the original series, but in the worst, most prequel-y way, with a lot of winks to the audience and clumsy foreshadowing. Basically, I expected Law & Order but one of the characters is constantly making puns about cannibalism.

But Hannibal is not that, and it’s actually really good. At least in the pilot. it’s a visually stunning crime drama more interested in the characters than the serial-killer of the week. Will Graham is probably the least memorable character in the entire ‘Hannibal’ mythos–even though he’s the protagonist of the first book–but I was invested in him from the first scene of the show, thanks to Hugh Darcy’s vulnerable portrayal and the neat trick of having Will live through the actions of the killer he’s investigating. You can see from the start what a terrible strain this talent has on Will, but also how crucial it is to his life. And then there’s the hallucinations…

But before I get too carried away: what about you, Kate? Did you go into this show expecting anything in particular?

KATE:  Yes. I was also expecting it to be terrible, like some unneeded reboot or revision of the original books with the occasional cheesy nod to fans (ha-ha, Hannibal is drawing the Florence Duomo!) And it is a little like that, but like you said, it’s actually good. The characters are recognizable but familiar…the sets are similar to those we’ve seen in other ‘Hannibal’ movies. Anyway, a lot of this is due to the creative edge of Bryan Fuller. He’s all over this show, from the dream sequences to the stylized cinematography. This is very important. Not only has Fuller done a lot of work in TV, he knows how to make something captivating and also slightly off-putting at the same time.

I’m definitely left wanting more. Is this going to be a total reimagining? Or will it have random asides and twists that are familiar to the audience but manage to push the forward in a new direction, a la Battlestar Galactica or Once Upon a Time? Is Hannibal a cannibal yet? Or is the script designed to make us think he is?

You mentioned Hugh Dancy’s performance and I completely agree. (Did they mention he has Asperger’s or did I imagine that? If they did, it’s brilliant and totally works for the character’s obsessive tendencies and skill as a detective.) However, I’d like to point out that the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal is one of the best decisions this show could have made. He isn’t creepy, but you know something is off, even if you’ve never heard of Hannibal Lecter. What did you think?

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JASON: You’re right about Mikkelsen. I don’t remember him from Casino Royale, but he’s really bringing his A-game, an absolute necessity when you’re taking over a role that’s been played by Anthony Hopkins, Brian Cox… and let’s not forget Gaspard Ulliel! Actually, let’s do just that.

Mikkelsen isn’t imitating Hopkins, but his Lecter is closer to Silence of the Lambs Lecter than to Manhunter Lecter, with the vaguely European prissiness and calculated use of language. As I remember it, the Hannibal in Manhunter really just sat around and said mean things. Also: no one in the show has remarked upon it thus far, but if you actually met Will and Hannibal at the same time, Will is the one who’d make you really uncomfortable. Hannibal has an undercurrent of menace to everything he says, but Will is constantly, visibly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Speaking of Will’s fragile state of mind–and you’re not imagining it, Will mentioned that he was somewhere on the Autism spectrum–the dream sequences in the pilot are fantastic. Since The Sopranos, a lot of shows have utilized dream sequences in interesting ways, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them done with this much visual panache. Some of that is due to this episode’s director, David Slade–who is coming back several times this season, thankfully–but I hope the rest of the series follows suit. I especially like how the dreams eventually bleed into something like hallucinations, further suggesting how Will’s instability is linked to his intelligence, because it follows the show-don’t-tell rule. That creepy bird-deer hybrid said more about Will than any tossed-off exposition could.

As for the future of the series, Bryan Fuller said that season four would cover the Red Dragon era, which is sort of exciting and sort of scary, because it suggests that Hannibal will go the Smallville route and become more of a re-telling than an origin story… and we all know how that worked out for Smallville. Apparently, Fuller and company are still working out rights issues with MGM, since they own the character of Clarice Starling (and are developing a show based around her, which I had forgotten about). Even if the rights aren’t an issue, there are about a hundred ways this show could go off the rails. Right now, though, I’m excited.

I have two embarrassing things to admit: 1) I didn’t catch the Florence Duomo reference, and 2) this is the first of Bryan Fuller’s work that I have ever seen. I get the feeling that’s not the case for you, so let me ask: how does Hannibal compare to the other show’s he’s worked on?

KATE: I’m filled with both trepidation and hope when the press jacket includes a show runner talking about a 4th season when the pilot hasn’t even aired. I’m not sure that happens with any other show. In one sense, it’s comforting to know that Bryan Fuller has a plan for the show. I absolutely hate a very promising show that spins into mediocrity because writers have no sense of direction or basic storytelling, like Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Dear reader, if there is something you must know about Jason and I, it’s that I absolutely hate Lost while Jason regards it as legitimate, good television.) So there’s hope…but also fear. A lot of fear. You are, after all, talking to someone who actually thought Hannibal Rising would be a decent book.

Mads Mikkelsen is fabulous, as I gushed earlier. He’s definitely hitched his cart to the Hopkins style Hannibal, but I do think there are certain portions of Brian Cox’s performance at work as well. In my mind, his Hannibal was straightforward, not mean. He enjoyed his interactions with Will because it worked to underscore just how incompetent he made Will feel, which he fed on. At any rate, Hugh Dancy and Mikkelsen have great chemistry, which I hope they continue to rely on going forward.

Hannibal is more of a visual hallmark of Fuller’s style than anything else. Like I said before, it’s his special effects and cinematography. To be honest, I’ve only seen one or three episodes from each of his previous series, but his panache is obvious, no matter what he touches, much like Joss Whedon or Ronald D. Moore.

Did you not like Smallville? I actually thought it was well done for a WB show, especially one that was solely made to retell something it’s key demographic grew up with. However, this was also before fandom got to the oddly huge Tumblr-esque proportions it’s at today.

I want a new episode. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

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JASON: As far as Smallville goes, I didn’t actually watch past the first season, but from what I had gathered, it went off the rails when Michael Rosenbaum left and the writers started introducing more superheroes while not allowing Clark Kent to actually become Superman. I guess that reveals how willing I am to jump on a hate-filled bandwagon, but I think my point still stands that Hannibal could easily screw up all the elements that make the pilot so fascinating. For instance: what if the show runs long enough to cover the Silence Of The Lambs era? Do we really want to see Mads Mikkelsen glowering at Hugh Dancy (and whatever ersatz Jodie Fisher the casting directors dig up) from behind a glass wall? I’m sure Mikkelsen would be great at that, but can you imagine anything more distracting than watching him re-create one the film’s most famous sequence? Also, what if the show covers the events from the Hannibal film? I’m not sure there’s any way to salvage that material. Same goes for the Hannibal book–they’re both two distinct flavors of awful.

At the same time, it speaks to my interest in this show that I’m actually excited by everything I just mentioned. Sure, the Hannibal novel is terrible–but that just means there’s room for improvement. It feels like heresy to even think this, but: a re-telling of the Clarice Starling Hannibal stories, minus Clarice, could make for interesting television. By the time we got to Season 5, the novel of Silence of the Lambs would be thirty years old. I think that’s more than long enough for a re-interpretation.

But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. Right now, all we have is surprisingly well-made hour of television full of impressive performances (we didn’t really get to it, but is any actor better at instantly switching from genial to commanding than Laurence Fishburne ?) and promising creative choices… which is no small accomplishment, but it doesn’t guarantee that the rest of the show will be any good. I have high hopes, though, which is more than I had before.

P.S. I can’t believe you brought up Lost so soon, Kate. It’s like you’re trying to sabotage our partnership before it even begins.

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