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“Hannibal,” “Millenium,” and the Macabre as Art Design

The currently airing NBC series Hannibal took many people by surprise. When it was announced, there wasn’t much excitement around it and most people assumed it would just be another unremarkable entry in this entertainment era’s remake, reboot, and reimagining craze. But once the show debuted, it immediately started generating strong buzz and attracted a cult audience. And for good reason.

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Listed in the credits as being based on Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’ first book to feature his famous cannibal psychiatrist, Hannibal takes place in the time before Dr. Lecter’s unmasking as a serial killer and subsequent arrest. Aside from taking place during a period that none of the other Lecterverse (do people call that? I don’t actually know) material has covered, the show has quickly established a unique identity for itself. The show overcame its first obvious challenge, finding a new Hannibal that can replace the iconic Anthony Hopkins, by casting of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, whose detached and cooly aristocratic Hannibal contrasts with Hopkins’ famously snide, sneering portrayal yet still manages to capture the character’s weird, off-putting charm. It also managed to escape the dual trap of being just an exercise in brand recognition and yet another network police procedural, using the familiar characters and scenario of the Hannibalverse (still not sure what to call it) and the recognizable format of cop shows as jumping off points to tell an engaging, long-form story of psychological torture and the darker side of human behavior. And perhaps most noticeably, developer/executive producer/writer/director Bryan Fuller and his production team gave the show a unique, striking design that makes it one of the most interesting looking TV shows currently airing.

All of the previous entries in the Cannibalverse (fuck it) had distinctly different looks from their counterparts, and this newest one is no different. Hannibal makes excellent use of set design and staging not just to establish it’s own a visual identity but also to very effectively enhance atmosphere. The team making the show obviously pays very close attention not just to having a wide variety of looks to the sets, but also to how those sets affect the blocking and placement of actors, which in turn affects the mood of a scene. Hannibal has some of the best use of space in a television show. As just one example, Lector’s psychiatry office seems to be designed so that characters often seem to be just too close or just too far away from each other, creating a visual representation of Hannibal’s duel settings of aloofness and intruding into others’ personal space. And of course there’s the show’s most noticeable visual feature: a shocking amount of beautifully rendered gore.

When Silence of the Lambs introduced Hannibal in 1991, it was with that famous slow pan across the lower levels of the insane asylum that finally stopped when Hopkins’ smirk and unblinking stare were in center frame. In the television show, Mikkelsen is introduced quite differently: the first part of him to appear is his hands. Specifically, his hands as they chop, massage, season, and otherwise lovingly prepare a tender looking cut of meat as he stands in his kitchen, preparing what by all appearances will be an incredibly sumptuous meal. The food is the main focus of the scene, and it is filmed with a gourmet’s eye, every shot further accentuating the impression of a truly mouthwatering meal in the making. The show never tells us exactly what it is he’s cooking. It doesn’t have to. Any audience watching Hannibal already knows about Lecter and his dietary habits, and the horror that comes with knowing that we’re almost certainly watching a murdered human’s carcass being prepared for consumption stands in vivid contrast to the alluring presentation. The scene is inviting and grotesque at the same time. It not only introduces the show’s title character, it also introduces Hannibal‘s main visual modus operandi: turning the macabre into the beautiful.

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It’s not just Lecter’s meals that have this dichotomous element. The murder scenes that the show’s cast of FBI investigators find every episode are presented in the same way: horrifying yet alluring. Murdered and mutilated bodies are staged in increasingly disturbing but strangely beautiful ways. Corpses hung on antlers like hanging pictures, a tower of dismembered bodies, bee hives growing out of emptied skulls. Hannibal‘s gore content is surprisingly high, especially for a primetime network show. Yet it’s presented in a way that’s not just meant to be shocking, but also intriguing and in many cases uncomfortably pleasant to look at, even as viewers recognize it for what it is. This not only increases the horror value of the show, but it also mirrors the storyline of characters entering the mindset of the deranged, murderous, and twisted in order to catch them only to find that they can’t quite make their way back out.

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If Hannibal‘s gore-as-art approach has any direct antecedent on network TV, it’s the late 90s Fox show Millennium. Created by The X-File‘s Chris Carter, Millennium was a much moodier, gorier affair than Carter’s other, more famous show. It also didn’t last nearly as long and never attracted anywhere near the same audience numbers as The X-Files, probably due to both it’s incredibly bleak style, subject matter, and content, as well as its schizophrenic nature. Millennium lasted for 3 seasons, and each one could have been from a different show. Season 1 was the closest in content to Hannibal, a nominal procedural that was really an exploration and meditation on the darker side of human nature, but with a focus on the vaguely occult as well as the cultural anxiety that permeated the late 20th century. Season 2 switched to an ongoing storyline that made it something like a much bleaker, focused, and ambitious X-FIles, with religion and apocalypse cults instead of aliens and an and incredibly pessimistic outlook on the future (technically, Millennium took place in the same fictional universe as The X-Files, but the concrete ties between the shows were few and tangential). After the experimental Season 2 failed in the ratings, Season 3 tried to have the middle ground. It kept the shadowy religious cults in the background while largely reverting back to a case-of-the-week format, but failed to do as well creatively as either of the previous seasons or to pull in the ratings needed to keep the show on the air.

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Hannibal and Millennium are two incredibly distinct series, yet they share many things in common. Though they were created nearly 20 years apart (Millennium debuted in 1996, Hannibal in 2013), they are both very much products of transitional times for television, and as a result were both able to push the boundaries of what could appear on network TV. Hannibal comes at a time when the old networks are facing declining ratings due to both a rapid increase in the number of available channels and the subsequent increase in quality (and edginess) of the content available there. Millennium ended in 1999, the same year that The Sopranos first started airing, and was part of a crop of shows that were forerunners to the HBO era. Shows like Millennium and Homicide: Life on the Street (another supposed police procedural that, with its Baltimore setting and participation of David Simon, can be seen as a direct ancestor of The Wire) may not have gotten away with what the HBO, FX, and AMC shows of today can get away with in terms of content and breaking standard TV show formula (or, in some ways, what Hannibal can get away with on modern day NBC), but they were constantly pushing against the constrictions of what network shows were allowed to do.

Like HannibalMillennium was sometimes shockingly grotesque in its depiction of murder and mutilation, yet also brought a strong sense of presentation and art direction to its gore and violence. Also like with Hannibal, Millennium gleefully forced its main character to explore depths of the human mind that are better left unvisited knowing full well he might not recover from doing so.

At first glance, Hannibal‘s protagonist, the neurotic and jittery Will Graham, might not seem very similar to Millennium‘s older, morose family man Frank Black. They both share a profession as psychological consultants for the FBI (Millennium has the distinction of coming from a time when the criminal profiler was a new and novel thing to have in a TV show), but in age, looks, and personality they’re quite different. But the journeys that their respective shows put them through are very similar.

Top: Will Graham (Hannibal)
Will Graham (Hannibal)
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Frank Black (Millennium)

The overarching story of Hannibal‘s first two seasons has been Dr. Lecter’s systematic mental manipulation of the psychologically vulnerable Will. Will’s ability to wholly empathize with any mindset, including those of deranged killers, makes him incredibly adept at analyzing and catching psychopaths and serial killers (it also makes him a subject of Hannibal Lecter’s curiosity, whose interest takes the form of a months-long campaign of mental torture). This ability to slip into dangerous and homicidal frames of mind makes him psychologically unbalanced and unable officially join the FBI, and he instead has to settle for a teaching position and being hired as an independent consultant. In Millenium, Frank Black is a former FBI agent who now works for an independent investigative firm, after years in law enforcement that ended with a mental breakdown. Able to adopt the point of view of serial killers and other deranged people, Frank quit his job after a stalker began threatening his family. Obsessed with finding the stalker and unable to shut off his ability to think like him, Frank’s inability to catch the man led to a nervous breakdown, and then a move across the country. He’s since returned to investigations, but tries to keep his new, ideal suburban yellow house a sanctuary from the horrors that he deals with on a daily basis (with less and less success as the series goes on).

Exploring the similarity between the criminal mind and those who investigate it is hardly unique to either Hannibal or Millenium, but it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two. An older Will Graham would probably share a lot in common with a Frank Black. Both shows also represent the way both characters see the violence and horror that their mutual job subject them to, and how they find it both repugnant and familiar.

The two shows share another common element in the use of fantasy sequences to represent when their lead characters are peering into the minds of others, and how the experience of doing so affects them. Both shows use this dramatic technique, but have differing approaches that highlights the ways each use the gore-as-art aesthetic. Will’s visions are long, clearly lit, and usually involve recreating every detail of a scene in slow motion. Frank’s, on the other hand, have a dark, grainy look that wouldn’t be out of place in the music video for Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.” They’re also quick, usually lasting less than a second. They’re impressionist flashes, rather than Will’s detailed reconstructions.

The differences in the two styles of fantasy sequence also relate to each show’s individual approach to art design. Hannibal looks incredibly modern, and often sets its action in sleek-looking, well lit rooms and polished metal labs. Millenium has a distinctly late 90s approach to portraying its air of darkness and anxiety, with an emphasis on heavy blacks, smudged browns, dirty yellows, and nighttime settings, brought to life with a much more limited late 90s TV budget.

While still allowing that Millenium and Hannibal are in many ways distinct from each other, the two of them do share a common legacy in the use of the macabre as a key part of art design. Both came about at a time of transition in TV entertainment, and the freedom that allowed them resulted in leaps forward in the design aesthetic for mainstream TV.

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