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NBC’s ‘Hannibal’: slow cooked and too dry

The corpses are flayed, filleted and fancifully splayed in NBC’s artful but excessively dour Hannibal, which is what’s for dinner tonight. You’d be forgiven for not really having the appetite for it. American culture has plenty of recent, real-life mass slayings to work with, mull over and reconcile – as well as a gun issue to resolve – but scripted television won’t go anywhere near that.

Instead, the makers and fans of today’s TV crime dramas believe deeply in the sort of serial killers who barely exist in actual crime statistics (if at all), and whose handiworks more resemble installation art than homicide. This treatment of murder is dissociative in the extreme; victims are figuratively (and in Hannibal’s case, literally) reduced and equated to meat products, which are then hunted by a modern, laughably fictional brand of monsters who live among us.

The Hannibal of Hannibal is, of course, an updated take on the infamous Dr. Lecter, drawn from the pages of Thomas Harris’s novels and brought to life by Anthony Hopkins’s knifey performances in The Silence of the Lambs and other movies. Franchise has replaced Shakespearean tradition; rather than invent ways to stage Macbeth or King Lear, we offer up new renditions of everyone from Norman Bates to Jack the Ripper. Some days it seems like there isn’t an original thought out there.

Hannibal can at least lay claim to primogeniture: If it weren’t for Lecter and the notion that killers adhere to a set of psychological profiles and reveal their motives in their methods, we wouldn’t have this glut of TV shows, novels and movies about specially abled sleuths pursuing playfully demented murderers.

So it’s up to Hannibal, as conceived by Bryan Fuller (who created Pushing Daisies and wrote episodes of Heroes) to improve on and possibly advance the genre. In some ways it succeeds, mainly in terms of mood and pacing. Working from Harris’s early novel about Lecter’s world (Red Dragon), the story focuses on Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), an FBI criminology professor whose antisocial symptoms of Asperger’s have bestowed on him an ability to interpret a killer’s intent.

Hannibal aspires to be something better than the average network crime procedural, and it shows. The first 2½ episodes preoccupy themselves with a single case – an outdoorsman who dines on the livers of young women who resemble his teenage daughter (because he dreads the day when she will leave home), goring his victims with the antlers of forest creatures he hunts.

For a while you can sense Hannibal’s noble urge to stick to a long story arc – why does there have to be a new case every episode? – but eventually it gives in to a proven formula. Frankly, everything Hannibal wants to do stylistically is already being done with similar flourish on Fox’s equally deranged The Following only at a much faster clip.

By now you’re asking, Where the (bleep) is Hannibal?

Here he is, played somewhat flatly and unmenancingly by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (a James Bond villain named Le Chiffre in Casino Royale). Dr. Lecter, a Baltimore psychologist, is brought in as a case consultant but sticks around to counsel Will through his nightmarish visions about the cases that Crawford keeps assigning him. Hannibal wants all the gory details, and he gets them.

Will frets that a “plagiarist” lurks on the fringes, enticed by the tabloid-style blog posts of a bratty crime reporter (Lara Jean Chorostecki) to commit copycat killings. None of these ace investigators realize that the gourmet meals they’re enjoying at Hannibal’s house (sauteed tongue; lung sausage) are somehow tied into all this.

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