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updated: 8/3/2014 10:10 PM

The best TV show you're (probably) not watching

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  • Mads Mikkelsen stars as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC's elegant, operatic and criminally underseen series, "Hannibal."

    Mads Mikkelsen stars as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in NBC's elegant, operatic and criminally underseen series, "Hannibal."
    Associated Press

  • Video: "Hannibal" Season 2 trailer


The idea of resurrecting a popular horror movie in the guise of a serialized prequel for television is not one that inspires confidence, but two shows that do just that have made it to a second season and enjoy varying degrees of commercial and critical success.

One of them -- A&E's "Bates Motel," which shows us what happened before Norman (Freddie Highmore) killed his mother (Vera Farmiga) -- broke ratings records for its network. The other, much better show, however, needs your help.

NBC's "Hannibal," starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as the titular cannibal, sounded like a bust when it was announced last year: How can a commercial network do justice to author Thomas Harris' grand, gory tales? How can anyone fill Anthony Hopkins' shoes?

But "Hannibal," brought to television by "Pushing Daisies" creator Bryan Fuller, has exceeded all expectations and subverts our concept of what a network drama can be. Its 9 p.m. Friday time slot apparently grants license to deliver gore that would make the cast of "American Horror Story" blush. Its aesthetic is elegant, sometimes operatic. The acting is subtle and nuanced. The writing is reverent to Harris' novels, but spins its own web.

Season 1 opens with FBI investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) pursuing serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs, a character mentioned in Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel. Graham helps catch killers by envisioning himself committing their horrific acts, allowing Dancy the opportunity to play both hero and villain -- often in the same scene. Dancy's Graham is a truly tortured soul, a character with depth we did not glean from earlier portrayals by William Petersen ("Manhunter") and Edward Norton ("Red Dragon").

Graham's chief ally -- or so he thinks -- is Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who might actually be the serial killer known as The Chesapeake Ripper. (OK, he is.) The temptation to compare Mikkelsen to Hopkins is quashed right away as we realize this is a version of Hannibal we haven't seen before. Mikkelsen must be convincing as an innocent ally to Will and the FBI, but also as a cold, calculating killer; Hopkins' Lecter is completely unhinged from the time we first see him standing behind that Plexiglas wall in "The Silence of the Lambs."

Rounding out the principle cast are Laurence Fishburne (never better, in my opinion) as FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford and erstwhile "Wonderfalls" star Caroline Dhavernas as Will's colleague and potential love interest Alana Bloom -- named Alan Bloom in the novels. The gender-bending doesn't stop there, as slobby tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds, played with appropriate smarm by Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Red Dragon," is now an impeccably dressed femme fatale played by Canadian actress Lara Jean Chorostecki.

"Hannibal" has acclaim, but it needs viewers. The ratings for Season 2 have not been stellar. Last week's fabulous, intense courtroom episode did show improvement over the previous frame, but Dr. Lecter still can't seduce 1 million viewers in the key 18-49 demographic. Friday night isn't the best night for TV watching, obviously, but that's what DVRs are for.

As for catching up with Season 1, Amazon Prime members can stream it for free, and it is available on Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand services. It's only 13 episodes, so don't be intimidated -- unless, of course, you're a bit apprehensive about seeing a totem pole made of human corpses.

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and tireless consumer of pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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