Like the Liberal Party and the Catholic Church, the charming serial killer Hannibal Lecter keeps coming back to haunt us.
In 1991 along came The Silence of the Lambs, a movie of sublime psychological tension. Anthony Hopkins, so chillingly gentlemanly as the imprisoned cannibal/killer/genius Lecter, seduced audiences with grave aplomb. Jodie Foster was the perfect foil as the brittle but resilient FBI agent Clarice Starling. Such was the impact that people sought out Thomas Harris’s original novel and the then-neglected earlier movie Manhunter, which had Brian Cox as Lecter and William Petersen as the broken FBI profiler Will Graham.
Later came Harris’s novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, each of which sought to expand the character’s narrative and myth. Each added layers of gloominess and gore. The same applies to the mediocre movie versions, even if Hopkins returned to play Lecter in 2001’s Hannibal and the remake of Manhunter, called Red Dragon.
The allure of Hannibal Lecter is fixed, essentially in The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter. And why the allure at all? Well, in those two works the monster is as suave as he is dangerous. He is a beast with the beauty of cunning, wit and seductive powers. We know serial killers, in reality, to be scarily deranged and repulsive. With Lecter, our uneasy fascination with the monster is assuaged by grudging admiration for his genius and good manners. Hopkins managed to embrace these layers in The Silence of the Lambs only, and Brian Cox did it in Manhunter.
Hannibal (NBC, CITY-TV, Thursday, 10 p.m.) is the latest riff on Hannibal Lecter, a mid-season series from NBC and brought to TV by Bryan Fuller, the creator of three fine series in Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls. This series is a high-stakes gamble for a network teetering on the brink of a failed season, and hungry for a hit.
This might not be it. Hannibal is a prequel to the story told in Manhunter (and the novel Red Dragon). Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is a former detective with a stunning ability to connect with the mind of a killer (too stunning by far in the first episode tonight, which strays into absurdity) and this has made him deeply neurotic and fragile. As the series opens, he gives lectures rather than attend crime scenes. His old boss, Jack (Laurence Fishburne) needs help solving a case of particularly baroque murders of young women in Minnesota, and draws Graham back into work. But Graham needs help, so he is sent to a psychiatrist for solace and support. That psychiatrist is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen from Casino Royale).
The series (made in Toronto) is a fascinating, possibly foolish addition to the Lecter canon. Fascinating because Mikkelsen’s icy psychopath is compelling to a degree. He mumbles in accented English, a tincture of some vague European depravity being added to his charisma. There is a gorgeous, perverse lavishness to the scenes of him eating meals, with whispers of wit floating around him. At the same time, the foolishness is in the Will Graham character, who is far too much the gormless genius profiler, a man with unerring insight into a crazy mind yet dumb as a plank at times.
The first two episodes are bewildering concoctions of blood and deviancy that don’t quite gel. NBC has, however, some faith in the series. It’s been announced that Gillian Anderson, ex of The X-Files, will make a rare return to U.S. network TV as a recurring character in later episodes.
For now, Hannibal is flirting, formidably, with the viewer. Mainly it’s Hannibal Lecter as the figure striving to seduce. It returns the character to his origins, pre the movies and books Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, but without Hopkins. It’s worth watching for the reminders of why Hannibal the Cannibal has a grip on us, why he disturbs and devours us with all that charm we know to be evil. We all want to dance with the devil, and he’s back to beguile us again.
Also Airing Tonight
The Beetles Are Coming (CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) is a fabulously made, visually rich excursion into the matter of the mountain pine beetle. Once deemed benign, the tiny insects are now seen as the cause of an ecological disaster in some of B.C.’s forests. But, you know, it’s not their fault. Climate change has changed them and their role. You get to meet them really up-close and consider their role in upsetting the balance of nature. Once welcomed, they are now out of control.
All times ET. Check local listings.