Will Graham is a sensitive guy. It's what makes this FBI special agent so special—his ability to empathize with almost anyone. He understands people because he can, in some little-understood way, become them. He can peer through their eyes and see not only what they see, but how. The sick, monstrous deeds of a murderer grow, if not sane, at least sensical. And through this dint of understanding, he helps his FBI cohorts—Agent Jack Crawford chief among them—catch the bad guys.
Of course, this sort of superempathy has some obvious downsides. It's not comfortable to wade into the mind of a killer. Will's gift also makes him antisocial. And he has horrible dreams. Result? He's a walking basket case.
So as Will probes the mind of these killers, the FBI gently probes Will's, through the auspices of a collaborator of sorts: The brilliant, cultured Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Perhaps you've heard of him.
NBC's Hannibal takes place well before Lecter was unmasked as a terrifying psychopath—before he supped on a census-taker's liver with "some fava beans and a nice Chianti." The series, while featuring some characters from Thomas Harris' series of Hannibal Lecter books, is not based on any one novel. This is a Lecter unfettered by bars or creepy facemasks. In this NBC show, the psychiatrist is literally free to work his quasi-necromancy on the living and dead alike.
In 1991, Lecter became a true household name in the guise of Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-winning fright-fest The Silence of the Lambs. It was, at the time, one of the most disturbing stories ever put on celluloid—a horrific amalgamation of sickness and sex and gore—and was, of course, rated a well-deserved R.
Now, 22 years later, much the same sort of content has been deemed appropriate for unrestricted broadcast-television audiences. Oh, the program is given a TV-MA rating, and "therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17." But the pragmatic realities of unequal access aren't the same for television as they are in movie theaters.
Hannibal doesn't feature masks made of human skin, perhaps. But blood and gore flows in abundance—from the victims' gaping red wounds to their organs sautéed in wine sauce. This show is predicated on death and psychosis. So while levels of gore may vary from episode to episode, the oppressive sense of horror will permeate its every second. Sex and violence mingle uncomfortably, too.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote that Fox's The Following was "the most disturbing show to ever land on broadcast television," even drawing comparisons to Silence of the Lambs.
The Following did not, alas, hold that unofficial distinction for long. Hannibal is worse—sprinting past The Following and never even minding the bloody footprints left in its wake. It's perhaps not The Walking Dead violent—at least not yet. But most of the worst scenes in Dead involve, well, the dead. Here, victims are very much alive before being creatively and horrifically butchered.
"Ultra-violent TV and serial killers are having a very popular moment," writes salon.com's Willa Paskin. And, of course, she's right. Practically everywhere your television dial turns right now, you're bound to find buckets of blood and oodles of intestines littering the set, often the product of charismatic psychopaths.
I used to think of television as comfort food—something reliably entertaining that most of us might watch an hour or two of after a hard day's work. Now it seems we're gorging on discomfort—stuffing ourselves with content unimaginable just a decade ago.
Dr. Lecter, given his particular culinary preferences, would be gratified.
A killer is abducting college-age girls, impaling them on deer antlers and removing their livers—apparently to eat them.
This killer, Will determines, "loves" the women, and he doesn't rape them. But he does hang them on deer antlers. (We see a dreamlike image of one girl suffering this fate in a nightgown.) "He kills them quickly, and to his thinking, with mercy," Will says. So the agent knows that when he finds a nude corpse of a woman impaled in the middle of a field (antlers obscure breasts; legs hide genitals), he's dealing with a copycat.
The copycat, it's suggested, is Hannibal himself. The girl's lungs were removed, we're told, before she died, and Hannibal appears to carve up and tenderize a set of human lungs for his dinner. The next morning, Hannibal brings Will some homemade sausage and eggs. (Will says it's very tasty.)
We see several dead and dying people, most saturated in blood and suffering from terrible injuries. Blood spatters walls and pools on floors. Will and others describe, in detail, what killers did—at one point itemizing the final fate of a bleeding, paralyzed woman. Someone's shot multiple times and left to die. We see grotesque pictures of victims and bloodstained clothes.
Characters drink wine. We hear a reference to semen.