What is the opposite of eye candy? Eye vinegar? “Hannibal” is part of a small surge of horror-tinged TV dramas that go deep into the ugliest potential of the human psyche. The show, largely based on characters created by “The Silence of the Lambs” author Thomas Harris, is a relentlessly gray nightmare of killing and being killed, of friends and family hiding murderous secrets, of a garden of partially buried corpses with plump mushrooms growing on their rotting skin. Really, there is nothing in the NBC series that isn’t rank and depressing.
On that level, “Hannibal,” which premieres Thursday night at 10 on Channel 7, is quite a triumph. The expertly chilly atmosphere conveys enough hopelessness and random violence to send you into an angst spiral for a day or two. This is a show on which everyone speaks in a halting, mesmerizing meter about why killers do what they do, as the dissonant strains of the horror soundtrack waft in and out — and then in again with a vengeance, to accompany the lurch of a person or drops of blood from the rafters. No one smiles here, unless they are crazed, and the deliberate, throbbing pace doesn’t give up.
On just about every other, deeper level — plotting, acting, dialogue — “Hannibal” is lousy. On the decomposing-corpse meter, the stink level is 7 on a scale from 1 to 10. The show is a collection of characters and twists that, without all the heavy-duty ambiance, are just empty clichés. It’s a lot like Fox’s “The Following,” as all the broodiness and forward momentum distracts you from the ham-handed story lines. If you listen to what the characters say on “Hannibal,” which is from the usually more imaginative Bryan Fuller of “Pushing Daisies” and “Wonderfalls,” it’s mostly wordy explication — telling instead of showing. Explication about killers, punctuated by cadavers.
The focus of the series is on FBI special agent Will Graham, the requisite TV crime guy who can get inside the heads of killers. He’s not a deductive genius like Patrick Jane on “The Mentalist” or Sherlock Holmes on “Elementary”; “My horse,” he tells us, “is hitched to a post that is closer to Asperger’s and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths.” He has violent hallucinations that help him re-create and dissect a homicide. Everyone is always worried about fragile Will; he gets too close to cases, and too close to the murderer within himself. Played with off eye contact, grumpy affect, and an unsteady American accent by Hugh Dancy, Will is little more than a construct.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is a bit more interesting as Hannibal Lecter, whom we meet years before “The Silence of the Lambs” has taken place. Mikkelsen plays Hannibal slyly, with so little affect and facial expressiveness that you project the worst onto him. We don’t know how deeply into his killing and cannibalism he is when “Hannibal” begins, but we squirm when he cooks up mystery meats for dinner guests, including Will. Next to Dancy’s tics and forced intensity, Mikkelsen is a pleasing relief. A psychiatrist, Hannibal hangs around crime scenes helping Will figure out his cases and keeping him grounded. Also trying to keep Will from imploding: FBI psychologist Alana Bloom, who is played dully by Caroline Dhavernas from “Wonderfalls.”
Laurence Fishburne has the thankless role of Will’s boss, Agent Jack Crawford, who uses Will’s gift to solve crimes. He’s as wasted here as he was on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” He serves as a mechanism to help to lay out the overall plotline, which involves a serial killer and, possibly, a copycat serial killer. Lara Jean Chorostecki also helps explain what’s going on as a tabloid crime blogger who gets in the FBI’s way. She is an irritating presence, an overfamiliar symbol of the amorality of media.
“Hannibal” essentially follows the same blueprint as “The Following,” as the gang of agents run from crime scene to crime scene to hospital room wondering how the killer slipped through their fingers yet again. Both shows suggest that serial killers are a cult-like group of individuals — including charismatic leaders — and that the detectives who go after them are broken and obsessed. And both shows are compelling, shocking, gruesome, and, ultimately, hollow.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.