Why 'Hannibal' Arriving on Netflix Is the Perfect Chance to Stream This Great Show

Curious about this bloody adaptation? Now is the time to take a bite.

Mads Mikkelsen in 'Hannibal' | NBC
Mads Mikkelsen in 'Hannibal' | NBC

When Hannibal premiered in 2013, the network crime procedural needed to be carved up, cooked over a hot stove, and served on a shiny platter. With basic cable shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and premium cable dramas like Game of Thrones and Homeland soaking up attention and winning accolades, more old-fashioned networks like NBC, where Hannibal initially aired, decided to take some bigger, more ambitious creative swings to compete. Hannibal, an arch and evocative reinvention of author Thomas Harris's cannibalistic super-villain Hannibal Lecter, was a wild, daring experiment. 

Conceived by showrunner Bryan Fuller, the writer behind quirky-and-cancelled cult shows like Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Hannibal should not have worked -- and, at least from a viewership perspective, it never totally did. Despite its famous source material, the show never became a ratings juggernaut and was unceremoniously cancelled after three seasons. With its baroque visual style, florid dialogue, and stomach-churning flashes of violence, Hannibal won't be mistaken for comfort viewing -- uless you find images like a body covered in mushrooms or an unnerving stag-man beast oddly soothing. 

Still, the show's passionate online fanbase, who referred to themselves as "Fannibals," and a number of prominent television critics, who often placed the show on top 10 lists, helped it achieve a level of cult appeal. Now, with the show newly available to stream on Netflix, there's never been a better chance to test it out. Is Hannibal right for you? Before you pick up a fork and chow down, here's what you should know. 

Mads Mikkelsen in 'Hannibal' | NBC

What is Hannibal about? 

In the simplest terms, Hannibal is a prequel to Red Dragon, the 1981 novel by Thomas Harris that introduced Hannibal Lecter, the deadly psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh, to the world. The bestselling book was adapted into 1986's excellent Manhunter, featuring Brian Cox as Lecter, and 2002's largely forgettable Red Dragon, which found a digitally de-aged Anthony Hopkins reprising his Oscar-winning role from The Silence of the Lambs. In the TV version of Hannibal, Lecter is played by the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known at the time for his role as the poker-playing villain in the James Bond film Casino Royale

In Red Dragon, Lecter is already behind bars, arrested for his hideous and alarming crimes, and is recruited to catch a killer named "The Tooth Fairy" by FBI profiler Will Graham. In Fuller's Hannibal, Dr. Lecter is a practicing psychiatrist and his cannibalistic appetites are largely a secret. He hasn't been captured and instead works to help Graham (played by Hugh Dancy in the series) track down the surprising amount of imaginative serial killers who haunt the streets of Baltimore. Particularly in its first season, Hannibal plays with the conventions of the police procedural. There are plenty of case-of-the-week episodes and even a pair of comic relief lab technicians, though the clichés get filtered through Fuller's mischievous style. 

Using various characters from Red Dragon and later plotlines from Harris's 1999 sequel Hannibal, which was adapted into a truly loathsome movie with Anthony Hopkins in 2001, Fuller slices and dices Harris's work for his own devices. It can be fun to spot the references if you're well versed in Lecter lore, as characters like tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds and wealthy obsessive Mason Verger pop up in various episodes, but a PhD in Hannibal-ology is hardly required. You just need a strong stomach. 

Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy in 'Hannibal' | NBC

Why is Hannibal so good?

One of the best parts about Hannibal is that it changes with each season. Where the first season hews closely to the demands of the X-Files-like hunt for new serial-killers, the second season morphs into a heightened psychological showdown between Graham and Lecter, culminating in a stunning season finale that's as surprising as it is satisfying. Season 3, which shifts the action to Europe and separates many of the central characters, is even more daring, pushing the show into an almost purely allegorical zone of intrigue and mystery. It consistently gets away with taking big creative risks because it's rarely trying to be realistic or even believable.

At the same time, the actors, particularly Mikkelsen and Dancy, ground the ridiculous twists and turns. Finding a more reserved take on a character that Hopkins turned into a terrifying screen villain, Mikkelsen underplays Lecter's violent behavior and obsessive tendencies. He brings a suaveness and a sexiness to the character that gives the show a disturbing edge. Similarly, Dancy plays Graham's gradual unraveling in a way that never sells out or undermines the emotional stakes of the show. 

Besides the performances and the writing, there's also the often stunning level of technical expertise and basic craft that goes into each episode. Directors like David Slade, who helmed the pilot, and Vincenzo Natali, who directed many of the best Season 2 and Season 3 episodes, bring a startling level of virtuosity to the show, splashing color across the screen and staging long cerebral dialogue exchanges in increasingly inventive ways. The harshly dissonant score, courtesy of composer Brian Reitzell, is similarly top-notch, adding an extra element of terror to even the most expository scene. 

the silence of the lambs
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in 'The Silence of the Lambs' | Orion Pictures

Does Hannibal connect to The Silence of the Lambs?

For most viewers, Hannibal Lecter will always be connected to Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs, and your love of Anthony Hopkins might be a hurdle when it comes to enjoying Hannibal in the early stages. Fuller's show is very different, more morbidly whimsical and psychologically dense, and the show never connects to The Silence of the Lambs in a direct way. However, the show does riff on elements of Demme's movie at various points, particularly the tense prison confrontations, and it's impossible to escape the long shadow the movie casts. 

For complicated literary rights reasons, Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster in Silence and Julianne Moore in 2001's Hannibal, never appears in Hannibal and the show never caught up to the timeline of The Silence of the Lambs. In interviews, Fuller and Mikkelsen have hinted that they were close to resolving the rights issues before the show was canceled. 

To add to the confusion, a show titled Clarice, starring Rebecca Breeds (Pretty Little Liars) in the title role, is scheduled to air on CBS at some point -- it was officially picked up in May 2020 -- but the show has no connection to Fuller's Hannibal universe. At least from the plot description, it sounds like a more straightforward procedural with little of Fuller's operatic touch.  

Mads Mikkelsen in 'Hannibal' | NBC

Will there ever be a Hannibal Season 4?

If a show has a passionate fanbase, and if it didn't get the chance to end on its own terms, there's always talk of a revival. There was always the possibility of telling more of a story and Fuller has consistently expressed interest in returning to the world of the show in some capacity. During an interview in 2017, Fuller described his version of Season 4 as "Inception meets Angel Heart" and said it would be the "next chapter in the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter." He indicated that both the main actors were interested. 

If the show continues to find new fans on streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix, a new season could very well move from a dream to a reality. While the existence of Clarice on CBS makes it unlikely that the show will be able to connect to The Silence of the Lambs storyline, Fuller has proven adept at navigating his own tricky narrative path forward. It's mostly a question of money and audience interest. For the show to come back, it'll have to find a network or a streaming service willing to fund another batch of episodes. Given the characters' resilience, resurrection is certainly not out of the question.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.