As a tired NBC strains to make it to finale week — steadfastly dragging its repeated flops, from “Do No Harm” to the rapidly dwindling “Smash” — viewers are continually left disenchanted. When the new prequel series “Hannibal” was announced, the initial hype was optimistic, but as Greenblatt and Co. prove time and again, the network can’t be trusted. Sure, the series boasts incredible acting chops, but how much more can be picked off the carcass of the Hannibal legacy?
Thursdays at 10 p.m.
As a new spin, the series will take place before the events of the 1981 novel “Red Dragon.” In “Hannibal,” the renowned psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, “Clash of the Titans”) hasn’t been caught, and the FBI unwittingly seeks his counsel in profiling various serial killers. The series will focus on the relationship between Lecter and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, “The Big C”), an FBI profiler.
At first blush, “Hannibal” fulfills expectations stunningly. The visual world it creates is darkly riveting — a delicate balance struck between the morbid and the artistic. The overall tone is just off-putting enough to arouse unease until the bodies are revealed, invariably young women, shorn through with antlers and dripping claret-colored blood.
Bryan Fuller, known for the dizzying Technicolor splendor of “Pushing Daises,” manages to elevate what could have been a routine FBI procedural into a masterpiece of the macabre. Panning shots of hoisted bodies, intricate slow-motion reversals and a stealthy, tension-inducing soundtrack all intensify the dreamlike quality. The slowly unfolding narrative keeps “Hannibal” from falling prey to simple shock factor and heightens every chilling detail.
After viewers get past the gorgeously grotesque scenery Fuller crafts for them, the pilot falters a bit. Like the dubious meat Lecter constantly dishes up, leave the show a little too long and there’s something off about the whole thing.
Convoluted dialogue is the most obvious problem. The series, banking on prior viewer knowledge of the whole Hannibal-is-a-cannibal business, infuses too much weight behind every word. A tête-à-tête between Graham and Lecter over mystery meat scramble is practically dripping with intended symbolism. “I don’t find you that interesting,” Graham says. “You will,” is Lecter’s counter. Besides straining to hear anything behind Mikkelsen’s thick accent and habit of dramatic murmuring, the whole conversation is tiresome and overdone. If this relationship is the supposed foundation of the series, the writers have a long way to go.
At least the campy dialogue doesn’t stifle the actors too badly. Though it may be hard for seasoned Hannibal fans to separate this Graham and Lecter from those found in “Red Dragon,” the majority of the acting is superb. Dancy plays a mesmeric Will Graham, awkwardly brilliant and intensely tormented (the series labels his condition as “pure empathy”), while Mikkelsen’s version of Lecter is intriguingly divorced from Anthony Hopkins’s Oscar-winning portrayal. There is the sense that this is a Lecter not yet fully given over to his darker ambitions; he is in complete control, the psychotic element pleasantly suppressed under neat three-piece suits.
With a prime time slot and an above average pilot, “Hannibal” might just be NBC’s Hail Mary pass. But what looks like “an unqualified success” one week can plummet in ratings the next. If “Hannibal” is shaping up to be as well executed (and not just visually) as “Pushing Daises,” then its biggest threat is imminent cancellation.