When Quentin Tarantino burst onto the moviemaking scene with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, one scene in his bloody, profane film inspired walkouts. It is a scene when Michael Madsen’s character tortures a police officer and cuts off the cop’s ear. The irony is that this moment is one of the least graphic in the film: the camera pans away from the actual moment of the slicing. It may be a suspenseful scene, but Tarantino shies away from gory depravity.
Today, you may think that if a television series had graphic violence as sickening as Tarantino’s 1992 classic, the only place you could find it would be on cable. Dexter, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have featured some of the most originally gruesome deaths in the history of the medium. However, last Friday night, one television series showed a character going through a murder scene and nonchalantly slicing off a man’s ear. It may surprise you that this show is, in fact, on network television. In addition, that ear slicing is far from the most shocking moment of that episode.
NBC’s Hannibal may be the most violent show on television now, even including cable series. The grisly crime scenes are startling – but that is just one of the major elements that makes the show must-watch TV. Further, there are chilling, powerful performances, haunting cinematography and set decoration, intriguing character dynamics and a complex exploration of violence and victimization. But, the series’ thirst for graphic violence, along with the shortened, 13-episode seasons and the psychological drama that emphasizes “showing” over “telling,” proves that the series can work on a level equal to gritty cable dramas yet succeed on a network level.
More often, media commentators warn that network television as we know it is at its end, due to DVRs skipping through commercials, the quality of cable programming and the vastness of the television landscape. But what if there was a show that could deliver the daring drama usually found on FX or HBO, but in a network time slot? Hannibal fits that bill; often, when comparing it to similar procedurals like The Killing, Dexter or True Detective, Hannibal has the upper hand in visceral, visual storytelling.
Hannibal Lecter, played with chilled class by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, is not even the main character on his titular show. Instead, the protagonist is another of author Thomas Harris’s beloved characters, special agent Will Graham. Hugh Dancy portrays Graham as a somber, insecure mess who can invade the mind of a killer to solve heinous crimes but who could be just mad enough to kill on his own. The character’s psychological instability (and unpredictability) makes him an even more fascinating study than Lecter, whose screen time grew over the first season as he befriended (and later manipulated) Graham.
Graham and Lecter’s knotty relationship is riveting, and it is surrounded with precise direction, writing and pacing. Creator Bryan Fuller had a compelling vision for how the stakes of the first season would build and unfold, and the first three episodes of season two have only reinvigorated the show’s adept direction and effectiveness as a character study.
Unlike procedurals like Criminal Minds and CSI, the characters on Hannibal react to gruesome violence in powerful and sometimes unexpected ways. Often, the reaction is unimpressed: the characters spend so much time dissecting the prerogatives for crime that they just accept brutal acts as run-of-the-mill. In last week’s episode, Fishburne’s Jack Crawford looked drifted as he watched an inferno consume two of his agents. Death lurks and feels inevitable in every scene of this show. The killings are also disturbingly innovative – a deformed, mutilated bunch of serial murders that reminds one of the lurid corpse constructions from David Fincher’s Se7en.
The show is also a stylistic treat, using sound and music to subjectively situate the viewer in Graham’s mind as he tries to envision what happened at the crime scene. Wet, red-like colours stand out against grayer backgrounds, especially with the carved-up meals that Hannibal serves when he has friends over for dinner. Hannibal is quite the food connoisseur, and the show lights and frames the meaty items on the plates he serves in a way that makes us hungry, even as we realize what kind of meat Dr. Lecter serves. The show is ominous yet its visual palette never makes it a burden to watch – that is, unless you cannot stomach some of the brutal violence.
HBO’s first anthology of True Detective also featured a cerebral investigator who had moments of vivid psychosis, a murky atmosphere, pulpy dialogue and some dazzlingly dilapidated set design. But that show only had eight episodes to prove its merits – and despite some stellar performances and some nifty storytelling tricks, turned out to be more about its parts than the sum of those parts. Meanwhile, Hannibal continues to push forward with surprise with its visual and (stunningly) emotional depth each week.
It is not surprising that Hannibal is struggling to find a large following and its 10 p.m. time slot on Friday nights feels deliberate to help grant the show an early cancellation. However, NBC would be betraying a first-class crime series filled with daunted characters and daring moments of brutality, both of a kind that police procedurals rarely approach on any network. Hannibal has the gore of The Walking Dead, the nihilist atmosphere of True Detective and Dexter’s macabre humour without feeling like a neutered network re-tread.
Hannibal is, appropriately, not a show for everyone’s tastes, but it has managed to be arrestingly bleak and beautiful. It is gory but not gratuitous, character driven without meandering into languid speeches and slow pacing (another feature of True Detective, a very good show that’s not great enough to live up to the hype). It is a show that embraces the evil of the characters and entices its audience not to recoil. More twisted and psychologically compelling than almost anything else on the air, Hannibal has proved that anything a cable show can do, it can do better… with even more bloody brilliance.