Horror television is notoriously hit or miss, often suffering under the restrictions of cable networks. Premium channels like HBO have more flexibility, but even then, good horror TV is so hard to find. However, in 2013, Bryan Fuller brought Hannibal, a shockingly gory and absolutely gorgeous series, to NBC. For three seasons, the show took characters and inspiration from the books by Thomas Harris and brought something incredibly unique to network television. Its use of gore and a meshing of genres piques curiosity without causing too much disgust, which means you never want to look away.
Hannibal is based on Harris’ most infamous creation, the cannibalistic therapist Hannibal Lecter. More specifically, much of the series draws inspiration from the novel Red Dragon. The show follows FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who has the uncanny ability to embody the perspective of a serial killer. He is able to almost predict their movements and actions, slipping into a trance-like state while examining a crime scene. After a traumatic case, Graham begins seeing Dr. Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), but Lecter hides a grotesque secret: he eats people.
The show oscillates between Graham profiling other serial killers and Graham and Lecter’s strange, blossoming relationship. Hannibal straddles so many genres, from crime drama to body horror to erotic thriller, which leads to a delightful tension that makes the show so inherently binge-able.
Hannibal takes inspiration from the tried-and-true crime procedurals as each episode focuses on a different serial killer. The FBI will find a mutilated body, Graham will examine it, and he will talk to Lecter to figure out the motivations behind each grisly murder — think Dexter but with darker undertones and imagery that’s far prettier to look at. There is even a trio of wise-cracking scientists who deliver comic relief as they examine the latest bodies. The series scratches the itch of those who love true crime and cops shows, but what makes Hannibal so different from previous iterations of the genre is the beauty it finds in the otherwise repulsive.
Body horror is all about the absolute destruction of the human form, and it’s typically gory as a result. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about blood and guts — or so you’d think, but Hannibal manages to take the grotesque and make it beautiful. A body is posed like a human cello, vocal cords exposed like the instrument’s strings. A woman is sliced into equal vertical pieces and displayed like microscope slides. Bodies are not just torn apart but strategically posed to reveal the macabre beauty that can be found in death.
These strangely alluring bodies also indicate a complex criminal with a fascinating profile. Each episode features a killer more bizarre than the last, which motivates you to keep watching. Just when you think they have reached the limits of network television, Fuller and the show’s writers prove otherwise. Their pantheon of killers is a hellish bunch, both demented and somehow charming.
Even more grotesquely beautiful, there are acts of cannibalism where Lecter makes human flesh into exquisite dishes that could easily belong in Michelin star restaurants. In fact, each episode of the series is named for different meal courses in French, Japanese, and Italian cuisine. Such titles are rather tongue-in-cheek, pun-intended, and reveal a show that revels as much in its body horror as in its very dark sense of humor.
That black comedy can also be seen in the technique utilized to film Lecter’s cooking scenes. The camerawork is reminiscent of Netflix’s Chef’s Table as the food preparation is shot in close-up. These horrific sequences are made to look like a cooking show, which creates a phenomenal tension; you want to be disgusted, but you are also enthralled. The camera focuses on Lecter’s hands as they slice, pound, and prepare human flesh to serve to his guests. You sheepishly find your mouth watering as Hannibal presents his meals with impeccable garnishes. Dinner guests like Graham sink their teeth into the meat, expressing their pleasure with the meal and complimenting Lecter’s culinary skills. And yet, all you can do is squirm as you watch characters unknowingly consume human flesh.
Yet throughout such violence, crime, and gore, there is a tenderness to Hannibal that offers balance to its more nauseating elements. While there are romantic subplots for Graham, especially with colleague Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), much of the show’s sexual tension brews between Graham and Lecter. They look at each other just a second too long, or linger after a handshake or embrace. Each of their interactions is crackling with tension — not because of Lecter’s crimes, but from the mutual admiration they share. That longing builds and builds throughout each season, to the point that you cannot tear your eyes away. You don’t want to just see what deranged killer is next; you want to know if Will and Lecter will kiss (you have to watch to find out).
All of these elements are supported by a stellar cast of both main and recurring characters who embrace the darkness of Hannibal. While Dancy and Mikkelsen are at the center of the series, costars Dhavernas and Laurence Fishburne also give phenomenal performances that help you become emotionally invested in each character. And then there’s Lecter’s own therapist, played by the incomparable Gillian Anderson, who oozes the perfect amount of sex appeal and intimidation as struts on screen.
Recurring characters such as the clever and needling journalist Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki) weave throughout the narrative like charming snakes that you hate to love. Then, there are those who play the murderers. Michael Pitt and Richard Armitage both guest star as serial killers who delight in violence in their own unique ways. Pitt is especially demented as the sadistic Mason Verger, a wealthy man who likes to feed his victims to the pigs and put children’s tears into his cocktails. Each guest provides narrative flavor and variety that keep this show from becoming predictable or stale.
Hannibal is unlike anything we’ve ever seen on TV. While it is dark, it is also beautiful and tender (both literally and figuratively). It is a show full of contradictions that present themselves through exquisite corpses and loving gazes from cannibals. It is just what the doctor ordered for lovers of true crime, horror, and the unusual. It is dangerously delicious and begging to be consumed.