Most television — scratch that, most fiction — is run on an engine of death.
Storytelling requires dramatic stakes. Dramatic stakes need to be high. And what's higher than life and death? Whether it's an alien race contemplating its end or an emergency room doctor trying to save the life of a patient, death provides the ultimate in instant drama. There's no wiggle room. You either are, or you aren't.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the cop drama, the genre that has been TV's most popular drama format since its very inception. Other forms come and go, but the cop show is eternal. And it's almost always about solving a murder, the corpse less a dead human than a prop whose various qualities must be examined in order to place the murderer behind bars.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. There have been a great many shows I've enjoyed in which the dead are there to introduce the story. But the weight of all that death never seems to hang over the characters in the way it would for any human being who was forced to look at it day after day after day. Or a show might take the opposite approach and surround the characters with constant misery — as with AMC's (and later Netflix's) The Killing, where it never stopped raining.
There are many reasons NBC's Hannibal, which is streaming on Amazon Prime and begins its third season Thursday, June 4, is one of TV's best shows, but for me, its greatness always begins with this simple fact: where other TV shows avoid the weight of all that death, Hannibal turns the horror into opera — bold and beautiful and over-the-top and opulent.
This is TV's most beautiful show
Even Hannibal's detractors (of which there are many) allow that the show is tops in one particular department: its visuals. Simply put, nothing else on TV looks like this show, which uses rich, dark colors to build a world seemingly constructed out of blood and bone.
That's sometimes literally true. At the center of Hannibal is the pursuit of serial killers, and since the series is based on the novels of Thomas Harris (who invented the famed fictional cannibal Hannibal Lecter, for whom the series is named), it indulges in a certain over-the-top Grand Guignol quality. Bodies are displayed almost as dioramas of death, pulled into strange forms and contorted beyond recognition.
In the third season's excellent second episode, one character, drawn overseas in his pursuit of Hannibal (who decamped for Italy after the brutal second-season finale), steps into a church and sees a human body broken and bent at odd angles, looking like a heart. Eventually he realizes what Hannibal is trying to communicate with this corpse — his heart is broken, and there may be no way of mending it.
The series' visuals evoke the emotional lives of the characters, then, but they also speak to the way the show's protagonist, criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), is forced to live inside the lives of both those killed and those who killed them. He's trapped, forever, between life and death, between those who feel power in the taking of a life and those whose lives were cut short.
And that feeling wears on him. The oppressive weight manifests as hallucinations and psychological breaks. In season three, Will almost seems as if he's teetering on the brink of complete and utter despair. And why shouldn't he be? The world of Hannibal is a place where law enforcement is utterly, completely incapable of stopping someone like Hannibal Lecter, because Hannibal Lecter isn't a mere criminal. He's a force of the universe itself.
Hannibal Lecter is the devil
In my interview with him, Hannibal's showrunner Bryan Fuller says he's always tried to give the show a sense of the mythological. Hannibal needs to, on some level, be a literal fallen angel, sent to Earth to tempt humanity into abandoning all of our societal codes so that we enter a terrifying world where the strongest and smartest survive and all others become grist for the mill.
Hannibal, of course, is just a man, and the series is always careful to never ascribe him literal supernatural powers. But it's excellent at capturing how those who encounter Hannibal — first as debonair man of high society, and later as he actually is — can find it hard to truly see him. He's so divorced from our normal modes of human interaction (in that he actually eats people he finds rude) that he can seem like an alien or demon, arrived from another plane to run cruel experiments with his human lab rats.
What makes Mads Mikkelsen's performance as Dr. Lecter so mesmerizing is the way he understands Hannibal's appeal. He's so smart, after all, and he has tremendous psychological insight, even if those insights often tend to push his patients toward committing murder. (Much of the first season was taken up with Hannibal's attempts to turn Will himself into a serial killer, through the power of suggestion.)
The chief skepticism many have about Hannibal is simply the fact that the character of Hannibal Lecter has been run into the ground by Harris's parade of novels that reduced him from elemental presence to punchline, and by movies that slowly wore away any menace he had, until he was as campy as Freddy Krueger in the later Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
Fuller and Mikkelsen get around this by making Hannibal someone who conceals a terrifying, core being that he hides behind a veneer of fashionability — he calls it his "person suit." As the third season begins, he's essentially kidnapped his own psychiatrist, Dr. Bedelia DuMaurier (Gillian Anderson), and made her live as his wife, to strengthen his cover story.
In a season premiere that makes languor thrilling, the series examines what being held by this man might feel like, how it would feel to be so horribly stuck that exit is impossible. Bedelia, at one point, ducks beneath the surface of a bath and imagines herself plunging into a bottomless pit of a lake, never to return.
And then she resurfaces, because to die is to give in to Hannibal's plans.
The essential cruelty of human relationships
At its core, Hannibal also examines the strange horror of intimacy, the idea of another person knowing you so well that you cease to be a mystery to them and, instead, become something worth manipulating. We rarely give ourselves up to others like this, but when we do, there might always be that lurking terror that they are taking advantage of this in some fashion.
Hannibal counts on this. Even when people know exactly who he is, they can't help but give up their secrets to him, and when he shows his true face to them, he seems almost pleased to be seen, to be known. Human interaction is something we've built up over our baser, more animal instincts, and Hannibal takes great delight in showing us how wrong we are to pretend we have evolved past those instincts very much at all.
Everything on the series, though, must come back to Hannibal and Will, who are at once the bitterest of enemies and the best of friends. When Hannibal is expressing his broken heart, he's most hurt that Will would not join him on a whirlwind world tour of murder.
There are a lot of shows on television that contemplate male friendship, but few that see it as clearly as Hannibal. True friendship, after all, requires some degree of trust and mutual vulnerability — and those are both qualities we don't tend to code as stereotypically masculine. Though Hannibal and Will's friendship is corrupted by the former's dark influence, there's also a kind of deep, abiding love to it, a sense that if things had been different — if one of them hadn't been, effectively, the devil — they might have formed a relationship that would have transcended time and space.
We're afraid of being seen or known, because we're afraid of what others might do with that information. But Hannibal argues that the only way to face anything — be it friendship, or death, or Satan himself — is to look at it head on, without flinching, until you can finally see both it and yourself more clearly. If other crime shows keep these things in the shadows, Hannibal blasts them with bright, searing light, and that is what makes it so tremendous.
Hannibal's third season airs Thursdays on NBC at 10 pm Eastern. The first two seasons are available for streaming on Amazon Prime.