'Hannibal' review: Hugh Dancy and killer visuals power NBC's new drama

hannibal-review.JPGNBC's "Hannibal" is a beautifully executed television show. It's anchored by several great performances, and it's among the more distinctive and gorgeously filmed shows on the air right now.

And I'm not sure I can watch it beyond the five episodes NBC sent out for review. More on that in a few paragraphs. First, though, the "beautifully executed" part.

"Hannibal," which premieres Thursday (April 4), is a prequel of sorts to "Red Dragon," Thomas Harris' first novel featuring Dr. Hannibal Lecter (although the show is set in the present). It centers on the doctor's ( Mads Mikkelsen, "Casino Royale") relationship with Will Graham ( Hugh Dancy), an FBI consultant with an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of serial killers. Will's empathy has taken a heavy toll on his mental state, but a new and particularly disturbing case brings him back into the field at the behest of Jack Crawford ( Laurence Fishburne), the head of the bureau's Behavioral Sciences Unit.

Crawford also enlists Lecter to help with the case, but mostly to keep an eye on Will and make sure he stays stable. We, of course, know that Lecter is himself a killer, but as far as anyone on screen knows at the moment, he's just another brilliant mind helping out the FBI.

Dancy ("The Big C") and Mikkelsen are both superb in their roles. As Dancy plays him, Graham is a jangly, jumpy bundle of neuroses, prone to vivid dreams about his subjects and doubts about his own worth to the FBI. You can virtually feel him trying, not always successfully, to hold himself together. Mikkelsen, meanwhile, is the picture of calm, never raising his voice or making a rash move, even though you can tell his mind is a step or two ahead of everyone else's. Fishburne, too, raises Jack Crawford a couple steps above the typical crime-show authority figure.

(It's not easy, incidentally, to divorce Hannibal Lecter from Anthony Hopkins, who played him so indelibly in three movies. It may take a bit for fans of "Silence of the Lambs" et al to get used to Mikkelsen's read on the character, but his performance is very strong in its own right.)

Creator Bryan Fuller and his team also deliver one of the richest visual experiences you'll see. "Hannibal" is pretty much the opposite of Fuller's "Pushing Daisies" in tone and in subject matter, but his flair for a great image remains. Red is everywhere in "Hannibal," but for the most part it's not lurid, jump-off-the-screen crimson, and there's a twilight, late-winter quality to the light in many scenes that fits the brooding tone perfectly.

So why, after praising the show for several hundred words, would I decide not to watch a gorgeous-looking, intriguing, well-made show? It has to do in part with the violence in "Hannibal," and in part with the larger world of pop culture, and in part with personal things.

No one would expect a show about Hannibal Lecter not to contain some violence, and "Hannibal" does indeed deliver, often in baroque fashion: bodies impaled, bodies flayed, bodies used as mushroom incubators. To its credit, though, "Hannibal" is as much about the effect seeing that much death has on Will as it is about the killings themselves.

Violent images have never made me physically squeamish, and they still don't. That's not where my unease lies. Nor does it lie in the idea that depictions of violence in media can cause or influence real-world violence -- I don't think it's that simple.

What did turn me off a bit in the first couple episodes of "Hannibal" was the victims were all young women. That is of course a well-worn trope in everything from crime dramas to slasher movies, but it's one I've become hyper-aware of since becoming the father of a girl a year ago. The subtext in these episodes, or in any number of "Criminal Minds" episodes or "The Following" or "Last House on the Left," is that the life of a young woman is cheap, and that's not a message I want my daughter to take in as she grows up.

That's obviously a very personal thing, and I recognize it has little to do with how well "Hannibal" is made or how anyone reading this review might respond to the show. But it is how I responded to the show, as otherwise interesting as it may be.

"Hannibal" airs at 10 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC.
Photo/Video credit: NBC