In 1999, Thomas Harris’ novel “Hannibal,” the third of the now-four-part book series, was all the rage among my friends, who passed the hardcover around. For whatever reason — probably because I had seen the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” (the most famous of the five Hannibal Lecter movies) and found it boring — I haven’t read any of Harris’ books.
Going into the TV reboot of “Hannibal” (9 p.m. Central Thursdays on NBC), buzz for the franchise is not nearly what it was back then. In fact, the most recent movie — the prequel “Hannibal Rising” (2006) — was a barely blip on the radar. I don’t know if my old friends are still fans, but certainly the Lecter franchise has fallen out of the spotlight.
However, I couldn’t overlook “Hannibal” for a variety of reasons: It got good advance reviews, it’s produced by Bryan Fuller (the man behind “Dead Like Me” and “Wonderfalls,” the two best darkly whimsical shows ever made), and it has a stellar cast including Hugh Dancy, Caroline Dhavernas (“Wonderfalls”) and Laurence Fishburne. And besides, no one was clamoring for more “Psycho,” either, yet A&E’s “Bates Motel” is outstanding.
After seeing the pilot, I’d say “Hannibal” ranks halfway between “Bates Motel,” which does everything right in the serial killer genre, and Fox’s “The Following,” which does everything wrong. “Hannibal’s” entry point for viewers is Dancy’s Will Graham, who has a somewhat disturbing skill in the same ballpark as “Millennium’s” Frank Black. Whereas Black can see the violent murder in his mind’s eye — something that understandably makes him broody — Graham not only sees the crime in his mind, but also understands, to a certain degree, the mindset of the killer.
Dancy, in a toned-down version of his over-the-top turn in the Asperger’s drama “Adam,” does good work in the pilot, whether we see him at home with his cadre of dogs, or talking with his boss (Fishburne) or crime-profiler consultant Lecter (a thickly accented Mads Mikkelsen, playing the role low-key but with an undercurrent of weirdness). We’ll see more of his romance with Alana (Dhavernas), a college teacher, in upcoming episodes. Graham’s various relationships with people — and his relationship with reality, which could become tenuous — are the reasons to tune in to “Hannibal.”
The title character himself isn’t much of a hook so far, but I suspect that will change as Graham gets closer to discovering that Hannibal — who, ironically, is a successful psychiatrist at this early point in the game — enjoys eating people’s livers with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti.
The killer in the first episode is an afterthought, and — a little too much like “The Following’s” debut — his motivations are skimmed over. The way that the good guys track the killer is likewise breezed over far too quickly; I felt like they made a major discovery during a commercial break or something. Another mildly disappointing aspect of “Hannibal” is that Fuller’s dark-but-heartfelt humor isn’t present. Maybe that’s to be understood with this material, which isn’t quite comedic, but it’s still a kind of a shame that the latest Bryan Fuller Show isn’t particularly a Bryan Fuller Show.
Despite a few early flaws, at “Hannibal’s” heart are compelling studies of disturbed characters and the dark side of humanity. The show may not be a tasty main course yet, but I’ll continue to sample it.