In today’s modern television landscape there are far too many shows which focus on violent crimes and serial killers. Every channel has their own spin on the genre, being CBS’s Criminal Minds and CSI‘s, NBC’s various Law and Order‘s, Fox’s recent hit (a horrifying fact) The Following, and even AMC’s The Killing. The bottom line is that violence and murder are everywhere on television today, which is a problem, to say the least. These types of shows are deplorable because they are set out to a specific track within their run. First, they provoke the viewer with their subject matter. Then, they sensationalize that subject matter. And finally, they end up exploiting the viewer. However, there is one show which is focused on serial killers and violence that is different from all of its counterparts, which is NBC’s Hannibal.
At the time when Hannibal premiered, it seemed like television needed anything but another serial killer show. After the show premiered, that perception was changed drastically. What became apparent after the pilot aired was that the show really knew how to approach its subject matter. The show did indeed provoke, (the pilot’s first crime investigated was a series of young women mounted onto stags’ heads) but it did not sensationalize. The crimes and images shown were extremely disturbing, but instead of glorifying them, the show used them to their advantage. With conscious awareness that the show’s subject matter was extremely disturbing, Bryan Fuller (the show’s creator and showrunner) approached the subject matter in a wildly different way than expected: with empathy.
Hannibal’s main character, FBI Special Agent Will Graham (played wonderfully by Hugh Dancy) has what the show calls an empathy disorder. With his empathy disorder, Will is able to put himself in the place of the murderers he is investigating and empathize with them. By doing this, Will figures out who they really are. Because of this unique approach to storytelling, the show is able to investigate its subject matter through an unflinching perspective and present it in an intelligent way. As Will is forced to investigate more and more crimes, he begins to hurt. Through this depiction, murder and violence is shown to really have an impact on a person. Instead of being a crime-fighting machine like one you would see on CSI, Criminal Minds, or The Following, Will shows signs of stress and uneasiness as he continues to be hurt by the cases he is investigating. This ultimately demonstrates that he is a real human being with real emotions. Instead of treating the subject matter lightly, the show is aware of its thematic weight and uses it to its advantage.
As Will begins to hurt more and more by the things he is experiencing, the viewer hurts with him. From the first episode on Will is damaged. Throughout the entire first season he is plagued by visions of Garret Jacob Hobbs, a man he killed in the pilot. The more and more Hobbs appears in visions the viewer hurts more for Will, because it is clear that he will not be getting better. In the first season’s 5th episode “Coquilles” (known as the infamous “skin angels” episode) Will remarks that it is getting harder for him to look at the crimes. This statement is one that resonates very much with the viewer because we feel exactly the same as he does, and it shows the amount of pain Will is really in. Will hits his most damaged point in the first season’s 10th episode “Buffet Froid” (one of the most unsettling episodes of television I have ever experienced) which gives acute insight into what damage has been done to Will. As the viewer finally sees this damage we are extremely hurt and disturbed, and consequently provided with an immense amount of thematic weight.
Of course, none of this thematic weight would be achieved without Hugh Dancy’s performance as Will Graham. The writing on the show is particularly good, but the performance is what really sells it. Because Dancy is such a talented actor, his performance as Will translates the raw emotion which the character is feeling beautifully. With this performance, the viewer is able to really see what has been done to Will, and ultimately ends up empathizing with him. It’s hard to find real characters who feel real emotions in network dramas (especially crime procedurals), but somehow Dancy has given us one.
It’s not only Dancy himself who is doing terrific, Emmy worthy work on the show. Lawrence Fishburne (playing Jack Crawford, Will’s boss) and Caroline Dhavernas (as Dr. Alana Bloom, a profiler for the FBI) especially resonate with the viewer through their performances. Both react to everything which Will is experiencing in nervous and cautious ways, as the viewer would. Dhavernas’s performance in particular is a beautiful piece of understated and subtle acting, and throughout this performance she shows how the world around Will has been impacted.
It would be very remiss of me to not mention the man himself, Mads Mikkelsen playing Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Even though Mikkelsen is giving a truly great and sinister performance, the show isn’t really about him. Even though the show’s name is in fact Hannibal, Dr. Lecter is more of supporting character in Will’s journey. This truly brings home the fact that Hannibal is not a murder obsessed serial killer show, but instead a complex and emotional journey of one man who has been deeply affected by violence.
Because of all this, Hannibal is probably the most important show on TV. When other shows take a heavy-handed and exploitative approach to violence and serial killers, they demonstrate how good Hannibal really is. Hannibal does feature instances of extreme graphic violence, but instead of glorifying it, it uses it to its advantage. There is real thinking which takes place within the shows creation and the characters themselves. The show cares deeply about its intelligent characters, and their complex emotions. Hannibal knows how to approach its subject matter, and has executed it successfully every chance it has gotten. In the end, nobody really wants to watch a show about serial killers and murder, but if these types of shows are going to be so damn popular, we’re going to need one like Hannibal.