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‘Hannibal’ nightmare assumes diabolical new dimension as TV series

I suspected that Thursday’s debut of NBC’s “Hannibal” (10 p.m.) would be the new season premiere of the season, but I wasn’t sure. Now that I’ve seen a few advance episodes, though, I am.

“Hannibal” is as original a take on the modern mythology of Hannibal Lecter as “Elementary” is on the much older mythology of Sherlock Holmes.

The trouble is that you can never really know in advance exactly what you’re going to see. I certainly didn’t more than a quarter century ago.

I had no idea when I sat down to watch Michael Mann’s film “Manhunter” back in 1986 that I was about to become acquainted with the darkest and most influential pulp imagination of our times, the one whose nightmares between covers have now become a kind of pervasive Western weather system.

I simply thought – as so many film critics do routinely – that when I watched “Manhunter” I was just going out of my way to see a film by one of my favorite directors (Michael Mann, whose previous film “Thief” was such a visual original and whose work on Tony Yerkovich’s “Miami Vice” helped give the show the freshest visual palette of its time on TV).

I didn’t entirely know what I’d just seen after “Manhunter” was over either. All I thought I’d seen at the time was a truly extraordinary thriller of ingenious malevolence that was likely to haunt me for a very long time.

It was at the time an utterly unheralded film of the sort that, in a small way, can become so much bigger an experience than 90 percent of the world’s blockbusters.

What it, literally, took years to realize is that I had just had my first close encounter with the man whose dark imagination both haunts our current way of telling stories in TV prime time and may even have influenced the prevalent nightmare of our 21st century New World Order.

“Manhunter” was Michael Mann’s first film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ second novel, “Red Dragon.” (Another adaptation came later by Brett Ratner).

The first Harris novel made into film was “Black Sunday,” which John Frankenheimer made into a film from Harris’ fantasy response to the Palestinian terrorists of Black September horrifyingly murdering Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

By the time Harris originally got through remixing the elements of Arab terrorism and public spectacle, he’d invented an original tale in which terrorists and an embittered Vietnam veteran would terrorize a Super Bowl in a hijacked fictional version of the Goodyear blimp. It was the latter element that, when Harris’ first novel and Frankenheimer’s film first came out, gave it a vaguely comic undertone.

We had trouble back then finding something dangerously homicidal in a blimp.

Until 9/11 that is, when many of us suddenly had a chilling presentiment: What if al-Qaida had devised its plan to destroy the World Trade Center with hijacked commercial airliners by conflating the actions of the Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II with Harris’ terrorists holding the whole Super Bowl hostage (as well as that moment in Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day” when space aliens turn the White House into a fine powder)?

The great, if often surly, filmmaker Robert Altman even looked around at his cinematic colleagues in Hollywood and said in 2001 what so many were reluctant to think out loud: that American filmmakers (and at least one writer) may have given al-Qaida ideas.

And if they did, Thomas Harris’ idea of using the most domesticated of airships as an instrument of spectacular terror was close to the origin of it all.

Mann’s “Manhunter” gave us our first glimpse of Harris’ character Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, the ultra-civilized psychiatrist and foodie who plays Bach and consumes human beings as the ultimate culinary delicacy. After “Manhunter” (and Harris’ original novel), Hannibal Lecter would appear again often, at first in Harris’ novel “The Silence of the Lambs,” whose movie version by Jonathan Demme was an exceptional Oscar-sweeper and became influential throughout prime-time TV in our era.

It was TV’s “Profiler” which first gave us some of the flavor of “Manhunter” and then “Silence of the Lambs” on network TV. Since then, we’ve had “Criminal Minds” to plunge us weekly into homicidal derangement and monstrous crimes, “The Following” most recently and the “CSI” shows to get us there through forensic lab work. A dozen new shows every few years have turned serial killers into the fantasy boogey men of our time.

It is, in effect, Thomas Harris’ total takeover of our pulp nightmares.

For a pulp horror figure of such immense influence – vastly more, by the way, than the more famous, more hyped and more visible Stephen King – Thomas Harris is almost unknown to the world. All we’ve really been told is that he’s a former wire service journalist and a culinary connoisseur who is said to be a completely genial man with a courtly, old-school Southern manner.

There are precious few pictures of him. (He is bearded and usually smiling; he looks like a most entertaining dinner companion.)

That’s what’s so good about “Hannibal.” We are always worried that, as Nietzsche put it. the abyss Graham has to look into is looking back into him.

This isn’t a TV show where everyone’s favorite monster, Hannibal, gives us, in anthology form, a series of ultra-dark “and then I ate” jokes for our edification; This is the prequel story of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), an FBI monster hunter whose immense value to the bureau is that he suffers from what psychiatrist Hannibal calls “pure empathy, an uncomfortable gift.”

In fact, only the viewers know in this series that Lecter (who is played with Scandinavian sangfroid by 47-year-old Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) is capable of doing things far worse than those whom Will Graham is hunting every week (in week two, we chase a killer who uses human corpses to nourish a growing mushroom garden).

The developer of this exceptional series is Bryan Fuller, the brilliant fellow who once gave us the all-too-shortlived “Wonderfalls.” Unlike, say, “Criminal Minds,” here is a TV series in which everyone’s favorite philosopher/shrink/cannibal/psychopath observes blandly “Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time. Are we not created in his image?”

It’s a series, then, which posits weekly that 1) too much empathy is, in fact, a disorder and a guarantee of great psychological suffering; 2) the wisest, most sophisticated and helpful shrink for those so afflicted is secretly the biggest monster of them all; and 3) the FBI guy in charge of the weekly investigations (Lawrence Fishburne as Jack Crawford) is merely the intermediary who unknowingly tees up the mind of his most fragile co-worker every week for the most vicious secret killer around.

We are way beyond, here, “Dexter’s” portrait of a serial killer who only kills serial killers.

“Hannibal” is a deeply sinister TV show.

And courtesy of Fuller, quite a brilliant one that gives us weekly Harris’ pivotal creations in a way that Harris himself might not have imagined.