Perhaps the most unexpectedly touching portrayal of friendship on television has emerged in Hannibal, NBC’s re-imagining of fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in middle age.
Instead of depicting Lecter and his ultimate adversary, FBI investigator Will Graham, as uneasy allies or suspicious colleagues, ‘Hannibal’ has chosen to forge a surprisingly deep friendship between the two men.
Hannibal is drawn to Will because Will’s vast imagination and tainted psyche mean he can understand what makes killers tick. Will is drawn to Hannibal, because Hannibal does a wonderful imitation of kindness. (A psychopath’s a great person to have around, because they’ll always tell you what you want to hear.)
If we didn’t know better, we’d assume that Will might be a good influence on Hannibal – he might even ‘save’ him from himself. But, of course, we do know better. The resulting audience reaction to their friendship is a hysterical kind of hopefulness, chased by queasy anticipation of bad things to come.
‘Hannibal’ bolsters this unexpected friendship with a makeshift family: Will and Hannibal taking on the role of surrogate parents to orphaned Abigail, herself a daughter of a serial killer. As in his scenes with Will, Hannibal offers Abigail much-needed comfort – comfort that the non-psychopaths in her life have been completely unable to provide. Yet the audience recognises that he’s grooming her as his accomplice – or, at the very least, content to make her dinner, if she becomes a threat. There’s that emotional cocktail again: hope and dread, stirred up nicely.
Inevitably, as ‘Hannibal’ becomes increasingly consumed by the subtleties of its character interactions (and creates stunning actor showcases for Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Kacey Rohl), the other story aspects feel underdeveloped, half-forgotten. The show is rapidly outgrowing its serial-killer-of-the-week format (if it ever fitted that format to begin with) and yet, without it, ‘Hannibal’ feels shapeless:
Where are we going? What’s on the horizon? What are the stakes? (Even ‘Mad Men’ struggles to sustain itself on character moments alone.)
Indeed, ‘Hannibal’ still has work to do in creating a show with longevity, but it is getting there. Throughout the first few episodes, I was nagged by its uneven portrayal of psychiatry, its unconvincing depiction of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, its jarring episode construction, its try-hard visuals. But, as ‘Hannibal’ has begun to hit its emotional notes (and hit them exquisitely), all of that has ceased to matter.
That’s the secret of good storytelling, after all: find the human drama and how you got there doesn’t matter.