NBC’s “Hannibal” and getting full on TV violence

It's the latest serial killer show to confuse darkness with seriousness

Topics: hannibal, tv violence, Television, TV, NBC, hugh dancy, silence of the lambs, hannibal lecter,

NBC's "Hannibal" and getting full on TV violence (Credit: NBC/Brooke Palmer)

On “Hannibal,” NBC’s lurid procedural drama about serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s origins, back when he was already enjoying human livers with fava beans and chianti but nobody knew it, another serial killer is murdering people by drugging them and then flaying their backs, their ribs and their skin to make wings. The victims resemble bloody, perverse angels. One such victim has been hoisted into the air, arms outstretched, in the middle of a barn. From behind one of this corpse’s flesh wings, the camera peers down on an FBI agent (Lawrence Fishburne) and the mentally delicate but brilliant profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). A filigree of bloody skin takes up the right side of the frame.  The camera then moves in on the two crime solvers, looking up at the corpse, as they have the following meta-textual conversation:

“It’s getting harder and harder to make myself look,” the sensitive Will, who, as profilers do on television, regularly reimagines ultra-violent incidents from the perspective of the violent. “No one’s asking you to look alone,” says Fishburne’s Agent Jack Crawford, eager to keep Will on the job. “But I am looking alone. And you know what looking at this does,” Will responds. “I know what happens if you don’t look,” Crawford answers. “I can make myself look,” Will says. “But the thinking is shutting down.”

The thinking is shutting down. That’s about right. “Hannibal” is the latest television program from a group of very talented people who have bamboozled themselves, and now would like to bamboozle you, into thinking that “darkness” — death and murder and mental illness and every sort of freaky grab bag of human sin — is indistinguishable from “seriousness.” As if being able to shock and upset people concerned with TV violence and/or titillate and astound people who thrill to TV violence makes the material edgy or wise, when, given the amount of ultra-violence one can find on a television these days, it’s really just boring.

“Hannibal” is being overseen by Bryan Fuller, the showrunner who previously created such genuinely original and delightful series as “Pushing Daisies” and “Wonderfalls.” It centers on Special Agent Graham (Dancy), a profiler of such skill the FBI wants to use him, even though he’s teetering on the edge of a mental break. To keep him grounded, the FBI’s Crawford has him talking to another therapist who also helps the FBI — Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by the creepy, handsome, excellent Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. “Hannibal” takes the form of an especially dreamy procedural, with Will and Hannibal mostly on the same team, the FBI’s, except that Hannibal sometimes murders people and then sometimes feeds the people that he murders to Will and Jack and whoever else happens to be around. He is an excellent cook.

Tonally, “Hannibal” wants to separate itself from the procedurals that are crass and “unserious” enough to treat corpses like funny props. It’s moody and slow and ponderous, elegant as Mikkelsen’s perfectly coiffed hair, except in the winky moments when, say, Hannibal serves Will an egg scramble that must contain body parts and Will unknowingly finds it delicious. Characters talk in hushed voices about the disturbing nature of the crimes. There’s a lyrical shot of a giant, antlered stag following Will in his dreams (it owes “Beasts of the Southern Wild’s” aurochs a hat-tip). What’s real and what’s imagined are sometimes hard to discern — because, you know, things that don’t make sense instantly are much more serious than things that do. The serial killers are more perverse and intelligent than usual. Corpses are lingered over longer. A set of human lungs as pink as the panther gets chopped up and sautéed.

Does “Hannibal” have something deep and original to say with all this squick? Or is all this squick supposed to be intrinsically deep and original? As the conversation quoted at the beginning of this piece suggests, Will is more sensitive to grisliness than stoic crime-solvers usually are, but his sensitivity is a convenience: “Hannibal” is the type of show that will stage a searching conversation about the toll that looking at death and darkness takes on the human psyche through a filigree of skin, or next to a body mounted on antlers, or a nurse used as a pin cushion. Like Hannibal the Cannibal, it wants to have its bloody carcasses and eat them too. It wants to suggest that there’s something important about looking upon horrors, and in the world of the series, that may be true: If Will doesn’t look, serial killers go uncaught. But in the real world, what’s the terrible thing that happens when we don’t look?  The ratings go down.

But, of course, we’re looking.  Ultra-violent TV and serial killers are having a very popular moment. “The Walking Dead” is the most popular show on TV, procedurals like “Criminal Minds” keep churning along, “The Following” has been a success for Fox. So long as this is the case, we’ll be getting more shows like this — but, ye TV Gods, please let the next series about violence and mayhem do something original, not just amp up the ennui and blood spatter, not take adult themes and bend them to adolescent ends. What about some hyper-brutal procedural where you never saw the bodies? A world exactly like ours, but where the blood runs green? Something, anything to suggest these series know that seriousness is not actually measured by the atonality of the soundtrack, the litters of blood spilled on the floor.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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