The corpses are flayed, filleted and fancifully splayed in NBC’s artful but excessively dour “Hannibal,” which is what’s for dinner Thursday night. You’d be forgiven for not really having the appetite for it. American culture has plenty of recent, real-life mass slayings to work with, mull over and reconcile — as well as a gun issue to resolve — but scripted television won’t go anywhere near that.
Instead, the makers and fans of today’s TV crime dramas believe deeply in the sort of serial killers who barely exist in actual crime statistics (if at all) and whose handiworks more resemble installation art than homicide. This treatment of murder is dissociative in the extreme; victims are figuratively (and in “Hannibal’s” case, literally) reduced and equated to meat products, which are then hunted by a modern, laughably fictional brand of monsters who live among us.
The Hannibal of “Hannibal” is, of course, an updated take on the infamous Dr. Lecter, drawn from the pages of Thomas Harris’s novels and brought to life by Anthony Hopkins’s knifey performances in “The Silence of the Lambs” and other movies. Franchise has replaced Shakespearean tradition; rather than invent ways to stage “Macbeth” or “King Lear,” we offer up new renditions of everyone from Norman Bates to Jack the Ripper. Some days it seems like there isn’t an original thought out there.
“Hannibal” can at least lay claim to primogeniture: If it weren’t for Lecter and the notion that killers adhere to a set of psychological profiles and reveal their motives in their methods, we wouldn’t have this glut of TV shows, novels and movies about specially abled sleuths pursuing playfully demented murderers.
So it’s up to “Hannibal,” as conceived by Bryan Fuller (who created “Pushing Daisies” and wrote episodes of “Heroes”), to improve on and possibly advance the genre. In some ways it succeeds, mainly in terms of mood and pacing. Working from Harris’s early novel about Lecter’s world (“Red Dragon”), the story focuses on Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), an FBI criminology professor whose antisocial symptoms of Asperger’s have bestowed on him an ability to interpret a killer’s intent. He can walk past the yellow tape of a murder scene, intuit the killer’s thinking and visualize what occurred.
Recruited by FBI honcho Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to apply his skills to the bureau’s most grisly cases, Will eliminates weeks of forensic work through his jittery visions and hallucinations, all of which are presented to the viewer with those hokey, “CSI”-style special effects: blood spatters forward and backward as Will journeys through the incident and “becomes” the killer; the camera zooms in and out; the background music is intolerably spooky and dramatic.
“Hannibal,” however, aspires to be something better than the average network crime procedural, and it shows. The first 21 / 2 episodes preoccupy themselves with a single case — an outdoorsman who dines on the livers of young women who resemble his teenage daughter (because he dreads the day when she will leave home), goring his victims with the antlers of forest creatures he hunts.
For a while you can sense “Hannibal’s” noble urge to stick to a long story arc — why does there have to be a new case every episode? — but eventually it gives in to a proven formula. Next comes the killer who buries his comatose victims in rich soil in order to harvest mushrooms growing out of their torsos. Then comes the delusional killer who sees people as demons, so he strings them up and uses the skin on their backs to spread out a pair of “angel” wings. This game of gross-and-grosser is more silly than haunting, and, frankly, everything “Hannibal” wants to do stylistically is already being done with similar flourish on Fox’s equally deranged “The Following” — only at a much faster clip.
Dancy makes for an interesting nerd with his own psychological issues; the only time he isn’t good in the role is when the script fails to keep up its end of the bargain, leaving him to twiddle his thumbs and overdo the “Rain Man”-esque personality tics. (The character also has a habit of sleepwalking in his underwear, and who’s complaining? His social disorder clearly hasn’t kept him out of the gym.)
By now you’re asking, Where the [bleep] is Hannibal?
Here he is, played somewhat flatly and unmenacingly by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (star of the Oscar-nominated foreign film “A Royal Affair”; he was also a James Bond villain named Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale”). Dr. Lecter, a Baltimore psychologist, is brought in as a case consultant but sticks around to counsel Will through his nightmarish visions about the cases that Crawford keeps assigning him. Hannibal wants all the gory details, and he gets them.
Will frets that a “plagiarist” lurks on the fringes, enticed by the tabloid-style blog posts of a bratty crime reporter (Lara Jean Chorostecki) to commit copycat killings and leave them for the FBI the way a cat leaves a lizard on the doorstep. None of these ace investigators realize that the gourmet meals they’re enjoying at Hannibal’s house (sauteed tongue; lung sausage) are somehow tied into all this.
Unnerving displays of cannibalism belong in any project claiming Hannibal Lecter as a title character. It’s all served in an outlandish enough manner to almost negate the too-vivid depictions of murder and mutilation. But what “Hannibal” needs most is some bubbly wit to help wash down its dead seriousness.
(one hour) premieres Thursday
at 10 p.m. on NBC.