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'Hannibal' Premiere: This Serial Killer Drama Is To Die For

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If you are wary of yet another show about serial killers and tired of violence in general, know that "Hannibal" (10 p.m. ET Thursday, NBC) is not a cheap attempt to ride TV's blood-lust trend.

At times, this drama is absolutely transfixing, and I say that as someone who felt great weariness at the thought of watching one more show about murderers. If nothing else, watch "Hannibal" for Mads Mikkelsen, who is sensational in the title role.

One of the most laudable things about this promising drama is its desire to demonstrate the cost and corrupting influence of violence and to show how it corrodes the soul. There's a palpable melancholy threaded through "Hannibal," which is terrifically directed (David Slade deserves special mention for the hypnotic pilot). Sometimes, storytellers demonstrate the importance of compassion and empathy by depicting their absence, and it's impossible to look at the haunted eyes of FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and not see how hard he is fighting to retain his battered humanity.

None of this is to say that "Hannibal" is easy to watch. At times, it's a challenge to stick with the show, which can be quite intense and disturbing (don't watch it with the kids around, unless you want them to have nightmares). But unsettling intensity is kind of appropriate for a drama about a criminal profiler (Graham) who can slip inside the minds of killers and tries to think like they do as he attempts to stop them. If the show didn't take Will's job and its emotional stakes seriously, and if it didn't have something intelligent to say about what Will's work does to him, it'd be as shallow and exploitative as "The Following," which pretends to have a depth that it conspicuously lacks.

"Hannibal" is emphatically not "The Following." It may have elements in common with the Fox show: Both star talented actors, at least one of whom hasn't been on American TV much. Both explore the malleable and murderous aspects of the human psyche, and staged crime scenes are a recurring motif in the two shows.

But "Hannibal" takes those building blocks and uses them to ask compelling questions about our fascination with violence; unlike "The Following," it doesn't glibly feed that appetite. Actually, "Hannibal's" closest TV cousin is FX's "American Horror Story," which, amidst its saturated imagery and pained tableaus, is strangely merciful toward the weird characters it so closely observes.

And this can't be said enough: Mikkelsen is reason enough to watch this show. He's phenomenally charismatic; his performance is a masterpiece of understatement and restraint. Mikkelsen provides "Hannibal" with the charismatic center it absolutely needs in order to work, and his Lecter is unfailingly mesmerizing.

This show is also smartly constructed as a thriller; there are a few canny cat-and-mouse games at the heart "Hannibal," though it resists plodding of case-of-the-week-itis. The show's overarching story has Lecter consulting with an FBI profiling team in order to help Will through various on-the-job difficulties, but as he guides Will through his personal hell, Lecter is also slowly seducing his mind and soul.

And what, dear God, is in those gourmet meals that Lecter serves his guests? Quite possibly nothing untoward, but "Hannibal" does a good job of putting a number of queasy possibilities in the viewer's mind.

Mikkelsen and the hangdog Dancy are so terrific that the show, especially in later episodes, tends to flag when they're not on screen or when Will is going through various procedural motions. Lawrence Fishburne is very good as the hard-driving Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI's profiling unit and a driven man who is determined to wring every last insight from Will's head. But there are times when the rest of the cast is out of step with the intricate dance being performed by Will and Lecter (and, to some extent, Jack).

For instance, Caroline Dhavernas (an alumni of executive producer Bryan Fuller's "Wonderfalls") plays another shrink, but her character often seems grafted on to the main action in awkward ways. "Hannibal" also features one of TV's favorite stock characters, the sleazy blogger/reporter, who is so predictable and one-dimensional that she detracts from every scene she's in. (And somehow the unethical lady reporter affords an expensive car and designer threads? What?) Finally, the plotting from time to time takes convenient turns that don't quite track with what has come before.

These are quibbles, however, and as the show settles into its 13-episode run, these minor issues may well work out in satisfying ways. The trajectory of Will, however, is a much larger concern. How long can "Hannibal" do a very commendable job of depicting the man's pain and suffering without turning the character into an ineffective husk? It's either that or he devolves into hardened "survivor" who enjoys his travels in Hell -- and neither of those options sounds appealing to me. This dilemma almost makes me wish that "Hannibal" were a miniseries and could exit after 13 episodes.

As it stands, NBC can't afford that kind of one-off success -- if the show is successful at all, that is. Strange as it feels to voice the sentiment, I hope this serial-killer drama works for the network. "Hannibal" isn't a dumb or cynical attempt to mine dark material; the cast, the direction and the adaptation of Thomas Harris' novels are all quite solid, and if Mikkelsen isn't nominated for an Emmy, that will be a crime right there.

Still, I wonder what kind of violence TV viewers want: Is the road to success paved with plain old machetes driven into unthinking zombie heads? "Hannibal" isn't as simple as all that, to the show's credit. Like "American Horror Story," it's actually concerned with strange permutations of morality, and there is space inside this creepy world for sadness, beauty and connection.

If you watch "Hannibal," it's likely to stay with you for days. Despite the darkness at the heart of it, that's a good thing this time around.

Critic Ryan McGee and I discuss "Hannibal," "Spies of Warsaw" and "Justified's" fourth season in this week's Talking TV podcast, which can be found here, on iTunes and below.

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