The NBC show “Hannibal” is one of my current obsessions. The story of the gentleman cannibal Hannibal Lecter has been a part of pop culture since 1981: from his introduction in Thomas Harris’ novels, to four movies, the most notable being the masterpiece that is the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is Anthony Hopkins for many people, in the same way James Bond is Sean Connery.
“Hannibal” is the newcomer, the first foray of the story into television, and it is amazing, due in no small part to Mads Mikkelsen’s turn as the monster in the man-suit, a performance that rivals Hopkins’.
More remarkable, though, is the aesthetics of the show. Writer and executive-producer Bryan Fuller is well known for creating visually lush television, such as the imaginative and whimsical “Pushing Daisies.” That artistic sensibility is what pushes Hannibal beyond the bounds of genre. It is not a police procedural, or an anti-hero piece. We know who the villain is, and there is never any doubt that he is a villain. What the lush artistry does is take the horrible and make it beautiful. Hannibal Lecter is as utterly morally reprehensible a person as can possibly exist, and yet the “person suit” he wears is as well tailored as his business suits, as elegant as his suave manner and cultured accent. He is distilled evil, and yet he is attractive. And that juxtaposition doesn’t stop with Hannibal. The visuals of the murder scenes, the morgue, the asylum…they are all, in a word, lovely. We are simultaneously attracted and repelled, a reaction that finds its apex in the cannibalistic culinary scenes. In one recent episode, we watch Hannibal transform a human leg into an elegant main course. My stomach turned and my mouth watered.
This sort of cognitive dissonance is common in literature, of course. I am reminded of Madame de Farge in Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, who uses the motherly, comforting act of knitting to record the names of the condemned. Its use in “Hannibal” is remarkably skillful, however. If you haven’t seen the show yet, check it out. It’s on NBC on Fridays 10/9 cst.
[Note: I am in no way involved in the production of “Hannibal!” I just love it tons.]