Television has come a long way — its critics would say fallen a long way — since HBO introduced Tony Soprano as the medium’s first evil protagonist in 1999. We now have TV shows with a heroic motorcycle gang (FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”), a heroic serial killer (Showtime’s “Dexter”) and a charismatic and witty, if not exactly heroic, killer-cult leader (Fox’s “The Following”).
So it’s probably not a big surprise that somebody at NBC, pondering how to pump new ratings blood into the network’s desiccated corpse, burst out in a staff meeting: Hey, how about a heroic cannibal?
And so Hannibal Lecter, the corpuscular connoisseur and grisly gourmand of nine sanguinary novels and films, makes the move to the small screen. Unfortunately, NBC’s “Hannibal” is no epicurean experience but a fast-food hash of poor planning and worse execution. The show debuts tonight at 10 o’clock.
Lecter’s character made his first appearance way back in 1981 in a notable supporting role in Miami author Thomas Harris’ novel “Red Dragon” — he was an imprisoned psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer consulted by FBI investigator Will Graham, who was pursing another psychopathic murderer. The elegant, droll and lethal Lecter (with a boost from his piquant on-screen portrayal by Anthony Hopkins) muscled his way into the lead in subsequent Harris books and their film adaptations, while Graham disappeared.
Their pairing is revived in NBC’s show, which is set shortly before the events of “Red Dragon.” Graham (played by Hugh Dancy, “The Big C”) is a former homicide detective whose ability to empathize with murderers made him a superb investigator but a shaky and withdrawn human being more comfortable in the company of dogs than people. His fears and neuroses have reduced him to lecturing at the FBI academy.
But his old Bureau boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, “CSI”), unable to solve a string of lurid co-ed murders in Minnesota, presses Graham back into service. Then, fearing his consultant will once again unravel, he orders Graham to seek psychological evaluation and support. Guess which not-yet-unmasked psychiatrist gets the job?
Conceptually, this isn’t half-bad. The writing, unfortunately, is all-bad. Though “Hannibal” is produced by Bryan Fuller, the creator of three of the most mordantly witty series in TV history (“Pushing Daisies,” “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfall”), the scripts are a mess of unmemorable dialogue and unworkable characterizations.
It’s hard to imagine that somebody as fragile as Graham could have spent 10 years working the homicide beat, or that his boss Crawford would be so belligerent toward a valued employee he knows is hanging by a thread.
And the scripts push Graham’s ability to visualize the motives and actions of murderers to the point where “Hannibal” sometimes seems intended as a parody of the crime-profiler genre. Seriously — one quick look at a murder scene and he spouts lines like this: “He has a daughter the same age as the other girls, same hair color, same eye color, same weight. She’s an only child. She’s leaving home. He can’t stand the thought of losing her.”
Worst of all — well, maybe worst; dissecting where “Hannibal” goes wrong is like figuring out which of the 37 bullet holes in a corpse was the fatal shot — is the performance of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”) as Lecter. It’s not Mikkelsen’s fault that he, very distractingly, doesn’t even faintly resemble Hopkins, whose film portrayals so indelibly stamped this character. But it is his fault that most of his lines are mumbled through a nearly incomprehensible accent of indeterminate origin. My advice: Wait for the English-language remake.