USA TODAY - Sometimes it pays to put your worries aside and go where your appetite for good TV leads you.
Anyone using reason alone is unlikely to commit to Hannibal, a show that, at first glance, layers bad ideas on top of worse ones. It's a prequel to a movie about a cannibalistic serial killer - which for a broadcast series counts as three strikes in just one sentence.
It replaces British Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins with Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, a very fine but far less well-known actor whose accent may serve as another barrier in a show that already has too many. And it's airing on ratings-shy NBC, and in a time slot the network has found almost impenetrable of late.
All told, the smart money says run the other way, which is exactly what you may be tempted to do after Thursday's first few, incredibly gory minutes. Yet if you stay, you just may find yourself captivated by a trio of strong performances from Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne - and entranced by the fevered-dream spell cast by creator Bryan Fuller, the brilliant TV auteur behind Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls.
It's no slight to a terrific cast to say that Fuller is the key here. In his hands, what could have been just a Criminal Minds-meets-Dexter procedural turns into an odd rumination on the limits of empathy and the isolation of genius. Blood flows and shocks abound, but Hannibal seldom seems to be operating on shock value alone; like its namesake anti-hero, something else is always going on behind the eyes.
The actual hero is Dancy's Will Graham, an empath-profiler whose ability to penetrate the minds of serial killers has left him mentally damaged. Unwilling to give up on a star employee, FBI Agent Jack Crawford (Fishburne) sends him to noted psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mikkelsen), who ends up joining Crawford's team.
We, of course, know that's a ridiculously bad idea: Hannibal is a killer and a cannibal, or at least he will be. Indeed, one of the show's more delightful bits of skin-crawling frisson, at least in the early going, is the way it plays with our knowledge of what Hannibal will become without letting us in on what he is. We don't see Hannibal do anything except cook and eat; if there's horror in that, and there is, it's entirely based on our own assumptions.
Not that there isn't plenty of blatant horror elsewhere. The cases the team investigate in the early going are as grotesque as any you'll find anywhere - without going into details, let's just say you may never look at an antler or a mushroom the same way again.
Like all fevers, Hannibal can sometimes be a bit much, but the actors, including Wonderfalls' lovely Caroline Dhavernas as Will's principal source of emotional support and Scott Thompson as a source of dark comic relief, keep the gore from being all that you remember. Dancy's mix of strength and fragility is incredibly compelling, while Fishburne's forceful turn erases memories of his dull, misguided star stint on CSI. And while his accent is sometimes daunting, you needn't spend long with Mikkelsen, whose stillness is almost hypnotizing, to see why he was hired.
As with any new series, not everything works. There are times when Will's profiling gifts seem like a cheap storytelling shortcut, and there are no times when the requisite irresponsible reporter makes any sense. Worse yet, in the big picture scheme of things, this may just be too bizarre a story for network-sized consumption. But normal isn't working for NBC, so why not try strange - particularly when strange is done this well.
Devour it while you can.