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Sunday, June 23, 2013

NBC's Hannibal: Triumph of the Will (Graham)

Generally speaking, I'd rather watch an interesting failure than a TV show that takes no chances and does no wrong. NBC's Hannibal is exactly such a show, in many ways a marvel of macabre creativity that is almost fatally hobbled by its core conceit.

Hannibal is the latest in a series of adaptations of the novels of Thomas Harris, which to a greater or lesser extent tell the story of notorious serial killer Hannibal Lecter, or Hannibal the Cannibal, most famously depicted by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film adaptation The Silence of the Lambs, along with a sequel and a prequel. Hopkins' riveting and vibrant performance as the charismatic Lecter won him an Oscar and become one of the most iconic portrayals in cinema.

That performance is what Hannibal is up against, and the decisions made by the show's creative team make sense on paper, in the face of such a challenge. In practice, however, there is no strategy, however heroically executed, that can vanquish the shadow of Hopkins as an actor and Lecter as character that lies over every episode. Hannibal's successes -- and it boasts quite a few -- ultimately fall short of the unavoidable challenge built into the very concept of the show.

The conceit of the series -- whose season finale aired this week -- begins with a  premise that has already played out by the time readers of Harris' works meet Lecter. FBI profiler Will Graham is a savant at tracking serial killers, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a prominent psychiatrist consulted by Graham on a case, who turns out in the end to be himself the world's premiere serial killer. Graham eventually catches Lecter, and by the time readers first encounter him, he's speaking from a prison cell in a scenario familiar to those who first encountered the character in The Silence of the Lambs.

Graham is a sturdy but conventional character in the books, so the show's writing team (led by veteran Star Trek writer Bryan Fuller) has tweaked him to address the biggest conceptual challenge Hannibal faces right out of the gate -- how do you craft a protagonist interesting enough to stand up against Lecter week after week?

In this, they have succeeded all too well. Hannibal's Graham is an unstable individual with a form of super-empathy that allows him to get into the minds of the serial killers he chases. This ability is introduced into an episode using an elegant but minimal swinging pendulum effect and anchored by a fantastic performance by Hugh Dancy as Graham that does everything it should and then some. Graham is so magnetic and troubled that he easily holds the center of the show.

But the series is called Hannibal not Will, and that's where the troubles start.

Dancy's Graham is potent, powerful enough to hold the screen with Hopkins' Lecter, in the same way Jodie Foster managed in The Silence of the Lambs. But his Graham was created to compete with Anthony Hopkins, and instead he's matched with Mads Mikkelsen as the doctor himself.

Mikkelesen plays Lecter as cold and unflappable. This is not an unreasonable choice for an actor or director in this situation. Harris' books hint at Hannibal's capacity for coldness, and an icy Lecter is about as far as you can reasonably go in differentiating the part from Hopkins' lavish portrayal -- a raging ocean of heat barely contained by a shell of dominating intellect and a twisted but compelling code of chivalry.

But Mikkelesen is not just cold, he's laconic, even terse. Every previous incarnation of Lecter has been loquacious. Lecter's ability to talk is the reason that he can succeed as the star of a movie even though he spends most of his time behind bars, and it's what makes him so compelling as a character. Mikkelesen is quiet, and when he speaks he's halting.

The actor is Danish, but his accent sounds German, which feeds into a lazy stereotype to enhance the feeling of coldness. His hairstyle, unfortunately, evokes Adoph Hitler, which doesn't help matters. Lecter is a character we are meant to love and hate in equal measure. That's a tall order for a monstrous, sadistic killer, and it's nearly impossible if the viewer is constantly thinking about Nazis.

The visual might be overcome if Mikkelesen was bringing more than ice to the role, but his performance lacks power. He successfully conveys some sense of danger and pathology, but he lacks the charisma that sprang from Harris' pages onto the screen in Hopkins' perfect-pitch performance. Dancy blows Mikkelesen out of the water in every episode and in their frequent one-on-one scenes together.

This is where the show's conceit is self-defeating. If Hannibal didn't invoke Lecter, Mikkelesen (who is by no means terrible) might be enough actor for the job and this could be a memorable story. Instead, he's outmatched weekly by both Dancy's onscreen performance and by Hopkins' unseen presence.

What elevates this from unfortunate to insanely frustrating is that one of the very few actors who could compete with Hopkins' legacy is sitting on the sidelines of this show, woefully underused. Laurence Fishburne plays Will Graham's boss, Jack Crawford. He does a fine job with the part, but he's capable of so much more.

Fishburne turned in an indelible performance as Morpheus in The Matrix along with many other fantastic but underappreciated turns in a filmography that includes Apocalypse Now. He has proven himself equally adept at soaring oratory and silent smoldering, and he can turn on the charisma with an utter lack of selfconsciousnesss. He is an actor who could have paid homage to Hopkins while carving out his own identity in the part. Instead, he lurks, mostly wasted, on the edges of the action, rebuking Mikkelesen's take on Lecter by his very presence. I can't comprehend how a casting director could net an actor of Fishburne's quality and fail to see his potential as Lecter.

Although the show frequently works once you get past these problems, its procession of weirdly aesthetic serial killers presented with a quixotic cinematographic style and artfully desaturated colors accentuates the inadequacy of the Hannibal Lecter we've been given. Lecter is supposed to be the most horrific iteration of serial murder, but his well-known taste for human flesh is eclipsed by the ultracreative forms of mutilation presented week after week by presumably lesser killers. In comparison to the show's murderers-of-the-week, Lecter seems the one thing he should above all else never be -- pedestrian.

What Hannibal gets right is the creation of a unique and characteristic look and a macabre mood unmatched by other equally gory shows on network television (sorry, Bones). The killings themselves are presented minimally and rarely seen, but the corpses belong in a museum, and Will Graham's super-empathy sequences add a sinister twist as his ability and another issue I'll omit for spoilerage increasingly force his friends and the viewer to ask whether he might not have the heart of a killer himself.

But again, the conceit defeats this admirable strength. Lecter not only pales in comparison to his movie and print counterparts, he also lacks imagination. We see very little of Lecter in action, in part because the writers have chosen to roll him out with agonizingly slow exposition. If the show was about a guy named Larry, this excruciating unwind would border on genius, but it's about Hannibal Lecter, and so we already know everything the writers are withholding. Despite the unbearable pace of this reveal, when Lecter finally does kill, it's bland and anticlimactic, and his violence is reactive to or derivative of violence by other characters.

This is not the monster that we tuned in for. He's kind of -- wait for it -- a hack.

Beyond the triumverate of Graham, Lecter and Crawford lies an uneven supporting cast. The lab techs are pretty good, and Caroline Dhavernas is interesting as Graham's not-quite love interest. Several guest spots by Gillian Anderson of The X-Files fame have been intriguing (if somewhat confusing), but the tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds is a disaster of writing that a half-hearted performance by Lara Jean Chorostecki does little to bolster.

These particular flaws are manageable, part of any series' growing pains. The show can evolve past them in Season Two, which NBC recently greenlighted. Unfortunately, it's extremely difficult to see how Mikkelesen can rise to his herculean task. Given the expositional approach to the character, for better or worse, I was inclined to give Mikkelesen the benefit of the doubt throughout much of the first season, in the hopes that he was packing a glorious, gory and surprising emergence, like the Death's Head Moth that features prominently in The Silence of the Lambs.

But if Mikkelesen was going to deliver, he had to do so by the end of the first season, and he didn't. His portrayal of Lecter has been remarkably consistent given the development of the story and the inevitable reveals about his darker side. While the factual layers of Lecter are peeled back in the plot, Mikkelesen's performance has remained as flat as the pulse of movie-Hannibal when he ate the tongue of that nurse. The role does not require histrionics, but as Hopkins demonstrated so powerfully, it requires passion. If we haven't seen that from Mikkelesen by now, it's very hard to believe we are going to.

I'll be back for Season Two. There's enough to like here, and Hannibal is refreshingly different from most of its network TV competition, thanks to its experimental cinema flourishes and Dancy's riveting performance. But I wish they'd called it "Larry" and crafted a beast that could stand on its own legs, instead of crouching in the shadow of a triumph it can never hope to match.




Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger Jihad Joe is the first comprehensive history of the American jihadist movement, tracking the phenomenon from the 1970s to the present. The book has been praised in reviews by the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, the Washington Times,, Library Journal and more. It is available in hardcover eveywhere books are sold, as well as Kindle, Nook and Google ebook editions.


ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. BergerJessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the new book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, on sale now, examines the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its potential fall, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents. Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.

Read an excerpt in The Atlantic | Listen to an audiobook excerpt

Buy now | Buy Kindle version


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For NPR's On the Media, J.M. Berger dissected problems with the coverage of Inspire Magazine.

J.M. Berger discussed the Boston Marathon bombing with BBC television and radio, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Berger also wrote about the attack for Foreign Policy and spoke with reporters from The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Christian Science Monitor, Radio Australia, AFP and many others.

J.M. Berger discussed the State Department's counterterrorism initiatives on social media with the Associated Press.

The Associated Press spoke with J.M. Berger about the recent reward offered for the arrest of American jihadi Omar Hammami

Wired covered a story first broken on INTELWIRE about American Al Shabab member Omar Hammami denying he wrote the jihadist raps attributed to him. "The raps were pretty terrible," J.M. Berger told Wired. "If he's not responsible for even one, that's a black mark erased from his record."

J.M. Berger was quoted in a Buzzfeed story on the Christopher Dorner case.

Berger was quoted in several recent stories on terrorist use of the Internet, including the suspension of Al Shabab's Twitter account. Associated Press, LA Times, Al Jazeera, Washington Times, Toronto Star.

CNN's Starting Point (above) and Out Front with Erin Burnett invited J.M. Berger to reveal new details about Wisconsin white supremacist shooter Wade Page and his recent encounters with law enforcement sources investigating domestic terrorism.

Berger was quoted in stories on on Wade Page, the white supremacist who opened fire on a Sikh religious assembly in Oak Creek, Wisc., by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and more.


New America Foundation panel, "Infiltration and Surveillance: Countering Homegrown Terrorism," with J.M. Berger and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.


J.M. Berger was named one of Foreign Policy's Twitterati 100, "the 100 Twitter feeds you need to follow to make sense of" global turmoil and conflict.

In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, J.M. Berger reveals the reason that Somalia's Al Shabab wants to kill American jihadist Omar Hammami.

J.M. Berger's investigative piece Patriot Games: How the FBI spent a decade hunting white supremacists and missed Timothy McVeigh was named a long-form journalism pick of the week from

INTELWIRE and J.M. Berger were quoted in a New York Times story on the latest Al Qaeda terror scare.


  • Homegrown violent extremism (HVE and CVE)
  • Terrorist and extremist use of the Internet
  • Lone wolf and loosely networked terrorism
  • American jihadists including Anwar Awlaki
  • History of jihadist terrorism in the U.S.
  • History of right-wing extremism in the U.S.
  • Al Qaeda infiltration and targeting of U.S. military
  • Early Al Qaeda history and structure
  • Terrorist tactics and financing
  • Jihadist activity during Bosnian civil war
  • Document research and FOIA


    New York Times: "a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective"

    Washington Times: "How these American jihadists became radicalized, recruited and trained... constitute the core of Mr. Berger's important book."

    Zenpundit: "Berger neither condemns nor excuses: he sees, he asks, he researches, he reports. ... a book to read... a book to admire." "well-researched and incredibly accessibly presented history of American involvement in violent jihad."

    Publisher's Weekly: "lifts the veil on the phenomenon of American jihadists..."

    Library Journal: "an easy read... the better choice for those seeking ... objective [journalism]."

    Buy "Jihad Joe" now!