Moderate spoilers ahead for everything that has aired so far.
Like many others, I remain incredulous that the "Hannibal" television series is airing on a national network. It's not just because of the violence and gore, which appears in copious amounts, but because the series so caters to a specific niche audience. "Hannibal" fans need to appreciate elliptical dialogue, artsy atmospherics, ambiguous plotting, and regular jolts of extreme horror movie imagery. It's so driven by aesthetics at times, you could mistake it for an European art film - except when it's also a sublimely macabre gorefest.
I wasn't all that enamored with the first season, though I appreciated what Bryan Fuller and his collaborators were trying to do with the property. I found the plotting too muddled for my tastes, and many of the characters weren't quite where I wanted them to be. Still, I saw a lot of potential so I came back for the second season, and promptly fell in love. Year Two of "Hannibal" is split up into two parts, the first with Will Graham in a mental institution, trying to clear his name after Dr. Lecter frames him for murder, and the second where Will and Jack Crawford are trying to bait Hannibal into revealing himself. The first half is where Will Graham grows a backbone, taps into the darker part of his psyche, and goes toe to toe with Hannibal in playing mind games. It is also much more tightly and explicitly plotted, with a couple of great twists.
And suddenly "Hannibal" was giving me everything I wanted from the show - lots of visceral thrills and chills without compromising the intellectual bent, and it started developing the major characters in the right directions too. Laurence Fishburne's Jack gets more interesting as he has to weigh Will and Hannibal's claims against each other. As Will becomes more self-aware and bolder in his maneuverings, Hannibal is put on the defensive. Their predator-victim relationship gets much richer and more complex with the two of them on equal psychological footing. Last year I watched the show largely for Mads Mikkelsen's take on Dr. Lecter, but now Hugh Dancy's performance is getting very close to the same level. I especially enjoy the recurring instances of role reversal, where Hannibal gets to play investigator or Will discovers his inner puppetmaster. The arc also makes great use of minor characters like Beverly Katz, Abel Gideon, and especially Dr. Frederick Chilton. Raul Esparza is a joy to watch.
Alas, Will Graham had to be let out of the straitjacket eventually, and the show had to move on to the second half of the season where we meet the Vergers, Margot and Mason, played by Katherine Isabelle and Michael Pitt respectively. There's too much story stuffed into this arc, and not enough time to adequately present it. I really got a kick out of the Vergers, but didn't feel we got nearly enough time with them to get the full impact of their twisted family feud. Will's attempts to entrap Hannibal also felt underserved, with too many pieces of key exposition missing. The final run of episodes wasn't bad in any sense, but it couldn't hope to match up to the intensity of the first half of the year, even with a wonderful finale. I'm hoping that next season fills in some of the gaps, and thank goodness there will be a next season.
"Hannibal" has distinguished itself by happily striking out on its own, borrowing characters, concepts, plot points, and imagery from the Lecter books and films, but being beholden to none of them. Characters have swapped genders, been killed off early, and positioned in different roles. Though the series is following the rough timeline of the books, specific events are ordered differently. Some of the dramatic license gets to be a bit much - there have been at least three fake-out deaths this year, possibly four - but the "Hannibal" creators have clearly become very comfortable with the material and are in a good position to start tackling some of the more famous stories coming up.
As always, I have a few reservations. Catherine Dhavernas still doesn't get nearly enough to do as Alana Bloom, and the most interesting female characters like Freddie Lounds, Dr. Du Maurier, and Bella Crawford have had fleeting appearances at best. Abigail Hobbs and Miriam Lass are really little more than plot devices, and Margot Verger's already gone. I'm hoping Clarice Starling is introduced sooner rather than later to help unskew things here. And while I'm all for letting the viewer figure things out on their own, there have been too many times where the writers simply aren't playing fair - nothing on the aftermath of the Chilton situation?
Then again, I'm getting worked up because "Hannibal" has really gotten its claws into me. I continue to adore the mad visuals, not just the death tableaux but the febrile sex scenes and the disturbing dream imagery. Directors like David Slade, Michael Rhymer, and newcomer Vincenzo Natali have been delivering excellent work week after week. The score and sound design have gotten weirder and and more evocative. The set design just keeps getting better. And the cast - even the one-off killers of the week have been landing actors like Amanda Plummer. It's fantastic.
"Hannibal" has survived despite the odds, and I hope it's around for a long time to come. I still find parts of it a little slapdash and problematic, but it's one of the most unique shows airing anywhere right now, and so well executed that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any other prestige series you could find on cable or premium cable.