Thursday, March 20, 2014

NBC's Hannibal: Bon Appétit

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"'Innocent' isn't a verdict, Mr. Graham, but 'Not Guilty' is."

That was the statement, uttered on the latest episode of NBC's 'Hannibal' that launched the character of Will Graham's defense attorney into a monologue about how courtroom proceedings are not law, but advertising. His job, he explained, was to convince a group of people to purchase a product they did not need, in this case a favorable verdict for an accused mass murderer and intelligent psychopath.

He then proceeded to tear open the seal of a package that had just arrived, spilling its contents – a severed, human ear – onto the table in front of him.

"I think I opened your mail," he said, calmly, unfazed.

Much has been said about the graphically violent content of NBC's Hannibal, and rightly so. The show continually pushes the known boundaries of broadcast television standards review, looking ever-more like its cable-tv competition than the bright-colored offerings of its major network peers.

To wit, episode 2 of the current season began with a man waking atop a bed of human bodies. His limbs were pressed together with wax and he was stitched through the shoulder to the corpse laying beside him. Freeing himself required tearing his flesh to first separate his legs and arms and then again to pull the stitching from his shoulder, all of which was portrayed by an unflinching camera lens that neither blinked nor wavered.

But the most interesting thing about 'Hannibal' is not the horrors that transpire on screen but the horrors that exist within the human mind. Gore is cheap, but nothing on Hannibal is done cheaply. The visuals are rich, the score is haunting and the attention to detail and scene creates an experience somewhere between dream and nightmare.

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But all of that serves as backdrop to what is one of the most finely-tuned plot-driven narratives currently on television. Every episode is in service of a larger story, perpetually advancing toward a foreshadowed and inevitable end, which trades on the expectations of crime- and court-procedural television to deliver something wholly unique.

Season two began with our hero, Will Graham, in prison accused of the murders perpetrated by our villain, Hannibal Lecter. A flash-forward tells us that by the end of the season at least Laurence Fishburne's FBI agent Jack Crawford will have made the paradigm shift on Lector's guilt.

Flash-forwards typically lead to disappointing narrative ends, but in the case of 'Hannibal' the entire series is working toward a known conclusion presented in 'Red Dragon' and 'The Silence of the Lambs'. We know where we are, we know where we're going, but how we get there is a mystery to all but showrunner Bryan Fuller and in the meantime the show keeps getting better.

Most shows have the loose outlines of their narrative objections but largely fly by the seat of their pants from episode to episode and season to season. By contrast, every minute of 'Hannibal' feels like the passing chapters of a well-constructed plan.

It is methodical, it is provocative and it is darn good television.

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