Hannibal is the best show on television.
It shouldn't work really. Anthony Hopkin's portrayal of the cannibalistic genius, Hannibal Lector, was iconic and remains on of the most talked about roles in movie history. How can you top Anthony Hopkins!?!? On top of it, we already know the ending of the story. There have been multiple feature films and several books which have thouroughly established the character and the story. What can the TV show offer which all the movies and books haven't?
Quite a bit actually. The show is set in the time period prior to Hannibal being placed in the prison, a period mentioned in the books but never really explored. It also focuses on Will Graham, an asperger's suffering criminal profilist, who is also mentioned in the books and is the intellectual equal to Hannibal. There are quite a few great characters in the story including Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus from 'The Matrix') playing the FBI Boss of Graham. He is another surprisingly complex character and one he becomes increasingly important as the season progresses. The show also diverges from the source material, honoring it while adding enough changes into play to suggest that the writers are willing to strike off in a new direction from the established mythos.
The show also benefits from being lusciously shot and amazingly written. The photography and scenes are movie quality; you only see scenes this gorgeously shot on HBO or in the Cineplex. They clearly put alot into each shot and are not afraid to use different angles and visual effects - one of the key aspects of the story is the mental deterioration of Will Graham and they are not afraid to show hallucinations and dream imagery on the screen. The show's writing is another definite plus. Like 'The Wire', each episode builds on what has occured before and there are clearly consequences for all involved. Even the stand-alone episodes contribute to the overall storyline. This show rewards the viewer who pays attention.
This is not a show for the squemish. There isn't alot of violence on the show - the tensest moments are usually lengthy conversations between the various characters but when it comes time for action, it is violent and bloody and shocking. This is a show about serial murder, mutiliation and cannibalism and the show is not afraid to show it on the screen. Frankly, every other episode, I just shake my head and ask myself, 'How is this on network TV?'. One of the crime scenes involves a serial murderer's victims whose eyes are gouged out and the backs flayed and the skin pulled back like Angel's Wings and left in the praying position. The imagery was horrifying and mesmerizing. Hannibal is the closest thing to 'Seven' as you are likely to see on TV.
All of the above makes Hannibal a really good show but there is one more thing which pushes this show over the finish line into best TV ever and that is Danish Actor Mads Mikkelsen's (the first villian in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies) portrayal of Hannibal Lector. Simply put, Mikkelsen's Lector is better than Hopkins. Anthony Hopkins self admitted that he played Lector like a predator, a caged animal. He could be smart and urbane one moment and then the next moment, he was eating your face. Hopkins played the role larger than life, with an air of sophistication overlaid a core of arrogance and shocking violence.
Mads plays Hannibal not like a predator, but like an alien. This Hannibal is as smart and cultured as Hopkin's portrayal but with a greater appreciation for art, whether it be music or cooking. But everything is empty with this Hannibal. Where Hopkin's Hannibal had violence at his core, Mad's Hannibal is empty of humanity - a 'human suit' (term used by Hannibal's pyschologist, X-File's Gillian Anderson!) hiding an alien intelligence who kills and eats people because it suits his warped sense of aesthestics. Mad's, an admirer of Hopkins, states that he is trying to channel Satan - not a beast - and I think he has nailed it. Mad's portrayal is otherworldly and utterly riveting.
There is a scene in the second season where one of his patients confides in Hannibal they want to die and attempts suicide by morphine overdose in front of him - the entire scene is very sad and moving and there is perhaps even a glimmer of empathy from Hannibal as he admits understanding why she is doing what she is doing, The scene is the most real suicide on screen I have ever seen. As she fades away, Hannibal watches her for a moment and then literally flips a coin in the air and then saves her life with a shot of adrenaline, bringing her back sobbing and hysterical that she still lived. The whole coin toss thing has been done before but believe me, the setup and the imagery is sheer artistry...and the insight into this Hannibal telling. Hannibal was supremely unmoved by this women's suffering. He could have let her live or die; the coin toss went one way and he callously and capriciously brought this woman back to more suffering on nothing more than a whim. He didn't do it because he was diabolical and delighted in the woman's suffering. He did it because he was curious to see what would happen. This quiet and intimate sequence and the resolution was far more chilling and horrifying than anything Hopkins ever did with his Hannibal.