“Hannibal” is one of the best shows on television. It’s also one of the hardest to recommend — maybe even the most indefensible. There are people, prominent critics among them, who find its lurid evocation of a serial killer’s interior life more than they can bear. They are probably better, or at least healthier, people than I. But for sickos like me, “Hannibal” is a rare, nearly incomparable treat, as distinct as the taste of human flesh itself. (At least, so I hear.)
“Hannibal” doesn’t exactly glorify murder. In adapting Thomas Harris’ novels — minus “The Silence of the Lambs,” the only one the show’s producer does not own the rights to — creator Bryan Fuller has cannily stripped away some of their less savory aspects, gleefully diversifying a principal cast composed almost exclusively of white men (he’s hinted that if the show ever gets the rights to Clarice Starling, she will be non-white); ; revamping the grotesquely homophobic characterization of Margot Verger from the the books; eschewing the spectacle of terrified, often sexually violated, women that drives so many TV procedurals. He’s even removed a central characteristic of the books’ Lecter, who often chooses his victims based on their lack of social graces — to “eat the rude.” “Hannibal’s” Hannibal is less an avenging Miss Manners than an existential artist: His murders are their own justification.
In the third season, Hannibal is on the loose, having left most of the show’s other characters — profiler Will Graham, section head Jack Crawford, psychiatrist Alana Bloom, and serial killer spawn Abigail Hobbs — bleeding and broken in the second-season finale. How many remain alive? Having left fans of the show gnawing their nails for more than a year waiting to find out, Fuller gives the knife one more delicious twist: You’ll have to wait until at least next week to find out. At the end of the three episodes made available to critics in advance, one character’s fate is still undetermined, and Fuller has cautioned that, given the show’s penchant for flashbacks and fantasy sequences, the fact that actors remain as series regulars does not necessarily mean their characters are still alive.
Instead, “Antipasto” focuses exclusively on Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Bedelia du Maurier (Gillian Anderson, now a series regular thanks to the blissful cancellation of “Crisis”). The season opens with a glossy sequence, directed by Vincenzo Natali, of Hannibal speeding through the streets of Paris on a motorcycle, a black helmet and leather jacket turning him into the Marlon Brando of cannibalistic serial killers. The music, by Brian Reitzell, evokes “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the visuals a cross between “Under the Skin” and Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus.” Lest that reference seem a stretch, Fuller has said the first thing he tells new directors is that they’re making a “pretentious art film,” not an episode of network television; its truest antecedent might be Powell and Pressburger’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” which also inspired a young George Romero. If you’ve never watched “Hannibal” before, even the first minute of “Antipasto” is enough to establish the show as something unique in the annals of television history. It’s not just astonishing that it exists on network TV. It’s a miracle it exists at all.
The plot, which comes from Harris’ novel, “Hannibal,” finds Lecter ingratiating himself into the European intelligentsia by posing as an expert on classic Italian literature — especially Dante, naturally — although the season’s second half will draw on the earlier novel “Red Dragon,” part of the “mashup” approach that allows Fuller to knowing riff on the source material while still surprising even those who know it by heart. Bedelia, his former therapist and colleague who fled when she began to suspect she was Hannibal’s next intended victim, is his traveling companion, posing as his wife, though it’s not clear how voluntarily she’s riding shotgun. As they discuss whether Hannibal plans to murder one snooty Italian scholar, she comments, “You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal. You have aesthetic ones.”
Letting aesthetics trump ethics is a danger “Hannibal” confronts on a weekly basis. Is it possible to lavish so much attention on staging sumptuous, glistening tableaux of human misery without becoming as depraved as the cold-blooded killer who has become a cultural icon? Fuller provides no facile answers, which is what makes “Hannibal” so engrossing, and so unsettling. We are compelled to watch — at this point, it seems clear that Fuller has opted to satisfy the fans he has rather than waste time luring in new ones — and left to question why. The show is never in Hannibal’s corner, but Mikkelsen’s portrayal is of a (or the) devil, not a monster: a tempter, rather than an external threat. It embodies, and sometimes indulges, the lure of evil, which makes it, paradoxically, more profoundly moral than the “Criminal Minds” and “CSI”s of the world, which do drive-bys on dreadful deeds and restore a sense of cozy order before the credits roll. Is it for you? The only way to find find out is to have a taste. And don’t worry: It’s all just meat.
Reviews of “Hannibal,” Season 3
Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
Now in its third season, “Hannibal” remains the most engrossing (and gross) serial-killer drama on television, and the most beautiful. Here, the acid never stops kicking in. The premiere’s opening sequence follows the titular cannibal as he drives through Paris at night on a motorbike, stalking a professor of Italian literature for two reasons: a new career and dinner. The sumptuous cinematography, the abstract imagery, the fluid editing, the jazzy-industrial score, and the deeply felt minimalism of Mads Mikkelsen’s performance work together to create an effect so rich, it’s like mainlining crème brûlée with your eyes.
Tirdad Derakhshani, Philadelphia Inquirer
Critics have called Hannibal Lecter’s narrative a horror story. But as the NBC series proves so adeptly, “Hannibal” is disturbing not because of the violence, but because it’s such an effective example of moral horror. Mainstream horror reminds us how fragile we are as physical entities. Moral horror, how vulnerable, how corruptible our moral compass.
Chris Cabin, Slant
The release of Hannibal into the European wild is mirrored in the show’s own ravishing aesthetic, no longer tied to the slightly stylish realities of FBI autopsy labs and fancy offices. As directed by Vincenzo Natali, the stylized gothic environs and architecture of Palermo evoke an engulfing personal inferno, which Hannibal looks happy to rule over, especially when he starts cultivating his own proteins again. No longer chained to its procedural backbone, season three of Hannibal wanders off into dark, unexpected territory in Italy, remaining even more incisively and ambitiously written than the last season, and sporting the most radically expressive imagery currently on television.
Sean T. Collins, Rolling Stone
Here, serial killers aren’t just murderers but sculptors, painters, performance artists — and, of course, cooks — with the human body as a canvas of choice. Victims are buried alive in a mushroom garden so that the fungal growths can connect them in a world that keeps us apart, or they’re arranged in a massive round color-wheel tableau that, seen from a distance, resembles a giant eye. (The better to stare at a god that isn’t there, my dear.) Crimes are staged like exhibits in a museum: A judge is blinded to represent the justice his courtroom couldn’t provide; a forensics investigator is systematically dissected. Deranged creative types transmit their unspeakable thoughts, and investigators analyze them — it’s the dialogue between a horror filmmaker and a film critic by another name.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
Surely, the idea of a series this graphic and disgusting airing on a traditional broadcast network, with all the FCC regulations and Standards and Practices executives involved, must be a dream. Or maybe it’s a prank, or a piece of guerrilla art, that got NBC to run a drama about a cannibal serial killer who at one point last season served a victim’s own leg (beautifully cooked and presented!) to him, and that has featured ancillary killers who have turned their victims into mushrooms, beehives, and angels with flesh wings. And even if you leave the baroque gore aside, how is a show so obsessed with classical music, art and philosophy allowed on the network of “The Voice,” “Sunday Night Football” and the sturdy and straightforward “Chicago Fire” franchise?
Matt Brennan, Thompson on Hollywood
In fact, it’s in a sequence that closely replicates Scott’s “Hannibal” that Fuller’s version displays its aesthetic acumen most prominently. To secure his new position as curator at a respected Florentine institution, Hannibal, alias “Dr. Fell,” lectures on “betrayal, self-destruction, hanging” in Dante before an audience of scholars. Where Scott positions him at the rear of an anonymous chamber, clicking through slides as the dialogue does all the work, “Antipasto,” the season premiere, situates the event amid an exhibition of medieval torture instruments, the demonic face of one aged illustration momentarily flashing across Hannibal’s as he performs his erudition from the stage. By comparison with the film, NBC’s series approaches something like pure style, creating meaning from visual textures—whether in the form of pencil drawings, ornate plates of food, or splayed bodies—that need no explanation.
Sam Woolf, We Got This Covered
The “case of the week” formula was complimentary potatoes to the series’ meatier pas de deux between Will and Hannibal, but it did lay the tracks needed for Fuller and company to carry their horror show from episode to episode at a steady pace. Now that Hannibal is on the road, the weekly investigations have been removed like the tasty filler they often were, and the result is a show that’s been stripped and flayed down to its most vital organs.
Allison Keene, Collider
“Hannibal’s” third season is certainly shaping up to be its boldest, most ambitious, and most novelistic yet, though it runs the risk of becoming too caught up in its own aesthetic. It’s something that has set the series apart and defined it stylistically; it’s full of symbolism and an exploration of what Emerson might describe as the Over-soul. But it does need to be grounded in some kind of reality (its sexuality and brutality are also complicated by an artistry that renders both cold). There is no sense of how the new character Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) will fit into all of this (he makes no appearance in the first three episodes), but he will more than likely help provided a little more of a real-world connection that the show very much needs.
Brian Lowry, Variety
The fierce loyalty the program has engendered among a small group of viewers and many critics — who wouldn’t miss the show unless they were strapped to a gurney — infuses “Hannibal” with a certain cable-style chic. Nevertheless, having already earned one stay of execution, prolonging this sort of exercise for too long risks overstaying its welcome; indeed, Fuller has bucked the odds by wringing this much mileage out of the Graham-Lecter cat-and-mouse game.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
On every level, Bryan Fuller and the team behind “Hannibal” are elevating what we should expect from network television. Books could be written on how the show explores its themes not through traditional crime drama mysteries of the week but through character, and there’s simply no program, cable included, that uses visual language more confidently and engagingly. Not just ethics, but everything about the program, is reflected in its aesthetics. “Hannibal” has already investigated numerous themes over its two seasons and change, but it comes back to the thin line between someone insane enough to dine on human flesh and how close someone has to come to insanity to understand that. There’s no better program on television.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
After just three episodes, Season 3 has its own distinct momentum — a choice that could alienate die-hard horror fans and the broader NBC audience. Gone is the diegetic debate over which character is the real killer. Everyone is hunting for Hannibal, including an Italian inspector haunted by an interaction with “the Monster of Florence” 20 years earlier. Gone, too, is the sense of urgency, replaced by a feeling of daunting inevitability. Waiting for Will and Hannibal to meet may be torturous, but the decisions each make independently from each other (or as independent as they can be) drive up the allure of seeing what they’ll do once united.
Sonia Saraiya, Salon
That’s a lot of creeping dread for anyone to handle — even audience members who managed to get through all of “Lolita.” Weirdly, though, even as the show is suffused with blood and death and the voices of the suffering, Hannibal himself is so devoid of feeling that the show becomes curiously divorced from feeling for the victims. It’s a story told best in the visuals: Fuller’s drama features gorgeously stylized visions of blood spreading across slick surfaces, ice picks entering skulls, antlers sprouting from contorted flesh, and skin peeling away from muscle with the grace of unfolding petals. But because we are in Hannibal’s head — and because we are reveling in the aesthetics of horrible death — the gore becomes terribly beautiful, the blood, strangely appetizing.
Ken Tucker, Yahoo!
Have I praised “Hannibal’s” visual and imaginative ingenuity sufficiently? Good. Because now I get to say that “Hannibal” is also one of the most hilariously ridiculous shows on TV. The fussy perfectionism of Hannibal Lecter, from his impeccable suits with jaunty pocket squares to his smirking murmurs of polysyllabic nonsense, is screamingly camp while lacking the wit of truly accomplished camp. If the show had a smidgeon of realism, there would by now have been at least one character who, after being subjected to a patented Hannibal monologue about the nature of death and art, would have laughed in this poser’s face. Instead, everyone holds Lecter in awe — and those who doubt his perfection are invariably either proven wrong or eaten.