“Hannibal” season review: A strong central pair obscures some problems on the periphery

Everyone has a handful of shows that they simply know they must keep up with, but circumstances beyond his or her control render that completely impossible. It’s hard enough when you’re simply trying to watch a set number of shows, but when you’re also trying to respond to them in the form of criticism, podcasts, episodic reviews, and other forms it’s downright silly to expect completism or anything close to it. Last week, I polished off one show on my belated list: “Orphan Black”. Tonight I closed off another: NBC’s garish, ghoulish, deeply upsetting “Hannibal”. I use those adjectives both in positive and negative meanings: At the end of the season, I can certainly say I appreciated what the show did, even if there were large portions that I simply did not enjoy at all.

Part of that lack of enjoyment comes from one of the show’s chief strengths: its unrelenting bleakness, both in its overt violence but also in its consummate despair. Bryan Fuller and company orchestrated operatic strands of gloom and doom with professional and creative aplomb, but I’d be lying if I say this is what I crave in my entertainment. To be certain, that’s part of the point: when critics and viewers complain about the hollowness of shows like “The Following,” what they mean is that shows that depict death need to have weight in order to make the endeavor more than a celebration of arterial splatter. But “Hannibal” is so damn heavy that it threatened to pin me to the ground under its enormous bulk.

nbc-affiliate-tosses-hannibal.jpgBut if the show depicted the effects of violence, it also did so in a concentrated manner than sometimes contained the effects of its exploration. By making the show essentially a two-man dance between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, “Hannibal” spent most of its energy on a slow, methodical descent into madness that depended on our helplessness in keeping Will from understanding the games being played in his mind. With the exception of Abigail Hobbs, we rarely saw the effects of violence beyond that inflicted upon Will. To be sure, Hugh Dancy played the hell out of Will’s season-long breakdown. But there were many scenes throughout the season that played the same note (on someone’s vocal cords or not), rendering “Hannibal” an exercise in Philip Glass-esque repetition. The tune set my teeth on edge in ways that often thrilled, but sometimes grew weary: There are apparently only so many times you can hear the high tinny of insects swarming inside the string instruments of an orchestra before it start to lose its effect.

More problematically, the show showed a great deal of violence inflicted upon women without a strong cadre of female characters to shore up the living side of the gender equation. Caroline Dhavernas and Gillian Anderson were both welcome presences, but also far from fleshed-out characters. Both Alana Bloom and Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier felt like characters designed to be more interesting in season two rather than integral parts of these first thirteen episodes. Freddie Lounds might have been the show’s least compelling character, existing as a plot driver rather than a three-dimensional person. Abigail feels like the show’s greatest missed opportunity, not because she didn’t shine while onscreen but because a show from her perspective might have yielded a new dynamic within this familiar world. I’ve seen plenty of shows and films about serial killers. I’ve seen few about the daughters of them. (I’m 99% sure I saw Emily Nussbaum tweet this recently, so I want to give credit where it’s due for pointing out something that had been bothering me for a while.)

“Hannibal” got lots of justifiable praise, stemming from two stellar lead performances and a world that showed the price of the violence it broadcast into the homes of NBC viewers. The show never treated its violence lightly, even if there were times (hello, Mexican necktie) when I would have been perfectly happy to have it do so. Ultimately, my problems with the show lie not in my admitted squeamishness but the singular focus of the violence on display. Violence on “Hannibal” was primarily delivered by men and analyzed by men, with the female characters on the show interacting through the medium of male intervention or male gaze. Part of the joy of “The Silence Of The Lambs” lies in Clarice Sterling herself, who rails against such a male-centric approach in every moment of that film. “Hannibal” couldn’t have had that character, but it could have used that perspective.

I’m glad I watched the full season, but I’m even happier there will be another one in which the show can hone what works while incorporating some additional elements to make the universe more well-rounded. Both Alana and Bedelia seem to have keen insight into the respective men in their inner circles, and potentially can be keys towards opening up not only the dynamic between Hannibal and Will but the dynamic of “Hannibal” as a whole. And while it seems Abigail is seemingly gone from the physical world, she has the chance to affect both men from beyond the grave. This isn’t about feminizing “Hannibal” to make it softer. It’s about treating the women as complex as the men in order to strengthen the entire show.