Imagine everyone's surprise when it turned out Hannibal was FUCKING AMAZING.
Hannibal shows us Hannibal in his best days, when he was—as Fuller puts it—a practicing cannibal and a practicing psychiatrist. He has patients who come to him to discuss their problems, and then he probably eats the annoying ones. The show knows that we know who Hannibal Lecter really is, even though the characters don't, and it has way too much fun with the dramatic irony inherent in the premise. The characters only see the surface—the elegant, refined gourmand with a keen sense of style and presentation—and they trust his judgment, never hearing our screams of "HIS NAME RHYMES WITH CANNIBAL" and "THE [INSERT FOOD HERE] IS PEOPLE!" The show is so winky-winky about Hannibal's darker side that—even though we know it's coming—it actually comes as a shock when it becomes explicit. Mads Mikkelsen does not ape Anthony Hopkins's iconic performance at all, not only because it would be distracting but also because it would make no sense. Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter exposed, incarcerated—Mikkelsen is playing Hannibal concealed, free. He puts on his person suit and only we, the viewers, can see through the thin veneer of humanity he projects.
FBI profiler Will Graham, then, complements Hannibal. Whereas Hannibal has no empathy, Will has pure empathy, a fictional condition—with a scientific basis—that allows him to get inside of the minds of serial killers. Unfortunately, they get inside him a little too. In some of the most unsettling sequences in the show, we see Will reenact the murders, and it's sometimes hard to see where the killer ends and Will begins. "STOP KILLING PEOPLE WILL GRAHAM" became my constant refrain and—to my utter delight—it also became his character arc. Unlike Hannibal, who is confident in his identity and kills without abandon, Will Graham must battle his darker impulses for fear of turning into the very killers he hunts. Continuing the dramatic irony, Will seems creepier than Hannibal because he doesn't try to hide anything; his emotions are written all over his face. Hugh Dancy gives him a vulnerability that makes you want to give the poor guy a hug, but he also feels dangerous, always a step away from pulling the trigger at the wrong moment.
And I haven't even mentioned the authoritative Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, who in one scene destroyed me completely with just his face), Will's boss/friend (like Will has any friends); the underused Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas, playing the complete opposite of Jaye Tyler), Will's colleague/friend (like Will has any friends); the mysterious Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson, icy cool), Hannibal's psychiatrist/friend (like Hannibal has any friends); the wily Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki, wonderfully amoral), a tabloid blogger and force of chaos; and the delightful members of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, who provide much of the comic relief. There are no weak links on this show.
Beyond the fantastic cast, however, the show looks and sounds like nothing else on television. Although it may have the trappings of a procedural show, with a new serial killer every week, Fuller thinks of it as a horror show, and the mood and atmosphere reflect that. With Breaking Bad off the air, Hannibal will become the most cinematographically interesting show on the air. Not only does Will's headspace allow for dreamlike, nightmarish visions but also the shot composition in general has a sense of aesthetics, from the intricately arranged food to the gruesome but beautiful tableaux of corpses. The music—the entire sound design—is designed to creep you the fuck out; composer Brian Reitzell strives to create new sounds, sounds you've never heard before so that they exist as aural wallpaper. But he also uses classical music when appropriate, a symbol of Hannibal's refined tastes.
Hannibal makes all my neurons fire on OH FUCK. For 43 minutes my whole body is OH FUCK. It examines mortality and death and killing, why we do it, what makes a person do it, what it means for a person's identity and sense of self to take a life, whether killing makes one a killer, whether helping kill makes one a killer. It looks at human connections, what keeps us apart and brings us together. It asks what makes a monster like Hannibal Lecter do the things he does and what keeps Will Graham from becoming a monster like him.
It's visually and aurally stunning. It's gorgeous and gory. It's unnerving and brutal. It's far, far too good for network TV. The first season, though not without its flaws, is exquisitely constructed, with such narrative density and character mirroring and parallels. It's an absolute marvel how all the themes and symbols and recurring images and lines come together in the end. Bryan Fuller is a goddamn genius, and I am ready for a second helping.