There are a million reasons why someone would bypass the show Hannibal entirely without giving it a sliver of a chance. For starters, we've already seen the whole serial-killer-hiding-in-plain-sight theme on Dexter, a show that subjected us to the laughable premise of the serial killer we could root for because he kills only the people who really deserve it. Never mind the fact that the show was driven by a hokey voice-over and outstayed its welcome by a good three seasons or so.
A major stumbling block to Hannibal is that it requires us to reimagine a character that has already had a definitive portrayal. Anthony Hopkins's performance in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs was so captivating that Dr. Hannibal Lecter became an iconic film villain, undeterred by his appearances in the lesser films that followed, Ridley Scott's Hannibal and Brett Ratner's Red Dragon. (Not to mention the criminally underrated Brian Cox version of the character in Michael Mann's overlooked 1986 film Manhunter.)
Plus, there's the fact that TV shows based on successful movies are always crapshoots. Sure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and M*A*S*H outdistanced their source material, but does anyone remember Robocop: The Series? How about the 1990 series The Outsiders? The annals of television history are littered with born-dead shows like The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Ferris Bueller, in which larger-than-life characters were unsuccessfully whittled down to episodic scale. Then there is the question of the eating of human flesh, but we'll get to that.
If any of the above reasons have prevented you from tuning in thus far, it's time to cut that out right now. All you're doing is depriving yourself of the most visually arresting, boundary-smashing programming ever committed to video-that-looks-better-than-film, let alone broadcast on network television. (You're also the reason the show hovered above the cancellation bubble during its two seasons. Once you get on board, you'll be suitably ashamed of yourself for putting the rest of us through that anxiety.)
But for now, I'll just be jealous. Anyone who is about to discover show creator Bryan Fuller's take on author Thomas Harris's characters—a combination of Lynchian psychological atmosphere and Cronenberg-style body horror—for the first time is very lucky indeed. Here's what you've been missing.
At the start of season one, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an esteemed forensic psychiatrist and trusted consultant to the FBI, is called in to supervise the brilliant FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who is all but emotionally crippled by an empathy disorder that allows him to delve into the minds of murderers in order to solve crimes. As portrayed by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, Lecter is the soul of composure and refinement, impeccably dressed, erudite, multilingual, with perfect hair and cheekbones that seem to have been carved out of granite. Oh, and by the way, this patron of the opera also moonlights as a serial killer who goes by the nickname the Chesapeake Ripper, harvesting the flesh and organs of his victims to cook and eat, taking special delight in serving them to unsuspecting dinner guests.
The scenes of Lecter cooking are so beautifully shot, it's easy to forget that he's working with human flesh. This is the darkest element of the show's appeal. The meals Lecter prepares are the result of unspeakable violence, yet the preparation and presentation are visually stunning. Fuller not only doesn't hide the gory cannibalism—he makes it look delicious. This could be the most transgressive act in the history of network television.
The more violent and gruesome the subject matter—a corpse's back flesh splayed out into angel wings, a row of bodies serving as the host for an elaborate mushroom garden—the more beautiful the cinematography seems to become. The frame is always impeccably composed, and the color palette meticulously chosen to complicate the aesthetics of the brutality and carnage. You find yourself stunned by the visuals before you realize what you're actually looking at. "Dear God, that pile of errant limbs has been stitched together into one giant human totem pole!" (Important side note for fans of True Detective: Hannibal did the body impaled on antlers first.)
But it would be selling Hannibal short to suggest that transgressive horror is all that's going on. The cat-and-mouse interplay between Lecter and Graham makes for riveting drama. Mikkelsen invests Lecter with effortless grace and reptilian detachment, allowing him to manipulate everyone around him with a stealth that befits a truly brilliant psychopath. In season one, Lecter develops a close relationship with the erratic and vulnerable Graham while acting as his psychiatrist, exploiting his frailties in order to set him up to take the fall for the grisly murders Lecter has been committing all along. The tension of knowing how the story has to end—thanks to Thomas Harris's novels—without ever knowing what to expect next is an agonizing slow burn sustained and modulated ingeniously from episode to episode across both seasons, the first of which ends with Graham dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, greeting his friend-turned-nemesis in a scene that mirrors Clarice Starling's first encounter with Dr. Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Graham manages to win his acquittal in season two only after Lecter deliberately leaves a trail of bodies to prove that the Chesapeake Ripper is still at large. More cat and mouse. Lecter recognizes that Graham is the only person smart enough to catch him, and the idea seems to delight him, which infuriates Graham. With the help of his boss, FBI special agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), Graham devises an elaborate ruse to ensnare Hannibal, leading to a bloodbath at the grisliest dinner party to date. The second season ended on a cliffhanger, leaving us in suspense about who survived and who succumbed to being gutted and stabbed in the neck.
As for Lecter, he was last seen sipping champagne in the first-class cabin of an international flight, accompanied by his enigmatic former psychiatrist, Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), who is either his accomplice or his hostage. Knowing the pair's troubling history, it could go either way. Given the rumor that the Red Dragon story line is expected to tie up the last half of the forthcoming season, this may be the year we see Lecter's plans unravel as he finds out how it feels to meet his match.
There are 26 episodes in seasons one and two combined. Each one runs 42 minutes, for a total of just over 18 hours of Hannibal to ingest before you're truly qualified to dig into season three, which premieres on NBC on Thursday, June 4.