There are admirable elements in writer Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal" (10 p.m. EDT Thursday), but also maddening plot holes in this NBC drama series based on characters created by author Thomas Harris in his novels and featured in the movies "Silence of the Lambs" and "Red Dragon."
"Hannibal" is set before Harris' "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs" while Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) is a practicing psychiatrist in Baltimore and not yet known as a murderer nicknamed "Hannibal the Cannibal." But the show is happy to remind viewers of what's coming with a first case involving a different cannibal in Minnesota. (The show's episode titles also pay homage to this: The pilot is called "Apertif" and subsequent episodes include "Amuse-Bouche," "Potage" and "Entree.")
While the series is named after Harris' most famous character, the show's lead is actually morose criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who has an ability to empathize with killers by imagining how they commit their gruesome acts.
The "Hannibal" pilot, as directed by David Slade, prepares viewers for Graham's descent into aping a murderer with a straight, neon yellow line that swings back and forth across the screen like a windshield wiper. In the pilot, Graham also walks backward for a bit before his first crime-scene re-creation.
In the premiere, viewers learn that Graham has some sort of social-interaction issue that he describes as "closer to Asperger's and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths" to FBI behavioral science unit boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, seeming much more comfortable here than he ever did on "CSI").
Despite NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt's claim in January that "there's a lot of violence around the show, but you don't see a lot of acts of violence," "Hannibal" actually does depict a fair number of murders. Granted, some killings come in the imagination of Graham, but they are still bloody and disturbing, as are the aftermaths when bodies are found in assorted poses by the show's particular, methodical madmen.
Crawford sets Graham up with Lecter, who becomes Graham's therapist/friend. But Lecter also secretly impedes investigations and commits crimes of his own all while "helping" the FBI.
"Hannibal" turns out to be a fairly serialized show with elements of Thursday night's first case continuing into future episodes. This gives the show a welcome depth, but it may surprise (and confuse?) viewers who have come to expect more procedural-crime dramas on broadcast channels.
It doesn't help that "Hannibal" offers no resolution for the first crime shown in the pilot. It's used to introduce Graham's method of crime-solving, but then the show is off to its cannibal case. That case continues in episode two, including a trip to a cabin in the woods, and then suddenly the focus shifts to another serial killer whose victims are buried in a different wooded area, but the similarities in the two cases (multiple victims, woodsy settings) could lead one to think it's the same case.
Fuller is a gifted TV writer whose past efforts include "Pushing Daises," "Wonderfalls" and "Dead Like Me." His attempts to build and deepen the characters in "Hannibal" -- particularly Crawford and his wife (Gina Torres, who is married to Fishburne in real life) later in the season -- make "Hannibal" something more than a killer-of-the-week crime drama. But this show is also prone to gaping plot holes.
In a future episode, Lecter manages to escape from a house with a young girl and a dead body while the home is surrounded by police -- without any explanation. The escape happens off-screen. A character ends the first episode in a coma in a Minnesota hospital; in episode two, the character is in a Baltimore hospital -- with no explanation for the move. In another episode, a killer who creates elaborate tableaus that turn his victims into angels is found in the same condition, hanging from barn rafters, leaving viewers -- but not, apparently, FBI investigators -- to wonder how it's physically possible to carve angel wings out of your own back, skin and then string yourself up by those same wings.
"The devil is in the details," Lecter says, but "Hannibal" doesn't heed his advice.
If these plots about wildly creative serial killers strain credulity, "Hannibal" is at its best when the focus is on more grounded characters.
Fuller rewards fans of Harris' novels with nods to familiar dialogue ("It's nice to have old friends for dinner," Lecter says to dinner guests, an approximation of a Lecter line from the "Silence" movie) and by bringing in familiar secondary characters.
Tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds is featured, but is now a woman, Freddie (Lara Jean Chorostecki), who writes for a crime website. Dr. Chilton (Raul Esparza), director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (future home to Lecter), also shows up in an episode.
The "Hannibal" pilot also includes Dr. Alana Bloom
(Caroline Dhavernas, "Wonderfalls"), a Lecter protege who consults with the FBI on criminal profiling.
With a bounty of characters, graphic crime scenes and a jumble of continuing plots, Fuller's "Hannibal" has the feel of a cable show, but one that doesn't quite come together at first, though later episodes show signs of an improved trajectory.
As Graham, Dancy has the appearance of a harried, nebbish graduate assistant. Dancy often seems to be sleepwalking through this charisma-free role except when Graham is more aggressive in his crime-scene-imagination scenarios.
Graham's dreams of being followed by an elk quickly grow tiresome and his counseling sessions with Lecter are not as engaging as they should be; the chemistry between the two just isn't there.
Graham is a collector of strays (stray dogs, mostly), and though he's the show's central character, it's the Crawford plot, particularly related to his wife, that makes the strongest connection.
As Lecter, Mikkelsen pours on the charm, but his Lecter lacks the seductive panache of Anthony Hopkins' take on the role. This Lecter is also less menacing, but he still draws focus in scenes with multiple characters.
Ultimately, "Hannibal" is a mixed bag. It's a more complex show than many programs in prime time, but it's still finding itself in early episodes, particularly with regard to plotting. Perhaps in time "Hannibal" will become a fully satisfying meal, but in these early episodes it's closer to fast food than fine dining.
(Follow TV writer Rob Owen on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV. Email him at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)