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Review: 'Hannibal' on NBC is the best -- and most chilling -- new show of the season

Watching the first five episodes of NBC's new series "Hannibal," I kept coming back to something I saw a few weeks ago on Twitter (if I could remember who said it, I'd credit them): "Hannibal" is everything Fox's serial killer drama "The Following" wants to be and everything its pilot falsely promised us it would be.

But it's also more.

This highly anticipated drama (by me at least), based on the well-known Hannibal Lecter character from Thomas Harris' novels (and of course, from the films), stars Mads Mikkelsen (left) as Lecter. Mikkelsen is an exceedingly magnetic Danish actor best known for playing a villain in the James Bond film, "Casino Royale."

In the NBC series, Dr. Lecter is a highly respected practicing psychiatrist recruited by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit, to assist his top consultant, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, pictured below). But Hannibal's primary purpose isn't to help Will profile sick killers, he's mostly there to help Will manage his own fragile mental and emotional state.

Dancy's Will Graham is really the central character in "Hannibal," possessing an almost supernatural ability to profile serial killers, which he does for the FBI in addition to lecturing. And in today's television vogue, we all know that any crime solver with uncanny deductive skills is likely to be presented as being on the Autism spectrum -- something Will almost confirms in the first episode ("My horse is hitched to a post that is closer to Aspergers and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths," he says). But unlike some other fictional crime solvers I could name, Will's particular condition isn't presented to make him seem quirky or magical; his is a very, very dark burden.

In fact, Will's particular gift-slash-burden is that he over-empathizes to such a degree that he is able to imagine himself as the killer and "experience" the crime being committed. The viewer sees what Will experiences when he mentally transports himself, which is Will acting out atrocious crimes so that he can better understand the motive and the murderer.

As you might guess, spending a lot of time inside a psychopathic killer's brain takes a toll, and Will wears down, both physically and psychologically, as the episodes progress. Dr. Lecter is brought in as a sort of safety net (for Will or for the Bureau, we're not always positive) in case Will seems about to snap.

I absolutely love this show, but I made some incorrect assumptions about it as I watched the first episode, particularly in regard to any role Hannibal may or may not have in the series of crimes being investigated. By episode two, I realized my mistake and settled into the show's storytelling groove. By episode five, all of that is upended with a revelation that left me salivating for the next installment.

In addition to the inventive storylines and excellent acting (Mikkelsen in particular is mesmerizing), "Hannibal" distinguishes itself from anything else on network television by being beautifully and imaginatively filmed. (It's developed, executive produced and written by Bryan Fuller, the creator the exquisite "Pushing Daisies" and "Wonderfalls.") The violence and crime scenes are graphic, but not gratuitously so, in my opinion.

In fact, some of the most chilling scenes involve no apparent violence at all: Dr. Lecter preparing and serving food to guests. Knowing what we know -- or think we know -- about Hannibal Lecter, it's impossible to watch Will take a bite of homemade sausage or see Crawford eat a bite of "loin" without freaking out a little. Even more disconcerting than the way Lecter's guests devour his scrumptiously prepared gourmet meals is the way he studies them as they take those first bites.

"Hannibal" looks and feels like a show you would see on cable, which is about the highest compliment you can pay a network program these days. And it's by far the best show NBC has introduced in years, as well as the best new broadcast network show of the season. It's in a killer timeslot, though (so to speak), up against "Scandal" on ABC and "Elementary" on CBS on Thursday nights at 10.

But if you're a fan of the murder mystery TV genre, just do whatever you have to do to check this one out.

***
"Hannibal" debuts on Thursday night at 10 on NBC.

What to Watch on Monday: A Pulitzer book to film and more 'Smash'

Gossip Girl (8pm, CW) - Nate hosts a Valentine's Day party, which Georgina crashes, and Blair tries her hand at matchmaking.

The Voice (8pm, NBC) - Round three of blind auditions continue.

Slavery by Another Name (9pm, UNC-TV) - Laurence Fishburne narrates this look at forced labor in post-Civil War America, when blacks were often arrested on and convicted of spurious charges, then leased or sold as laborers to various entities -- a practice that lasted well into the 20th century. Adapted from Wall Street Journal writer Douglas Blackmon's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Alcatraz (9pm, Fox) - An inmate resurfaces and plants bombs throughout populated areas of San Francisco.

BET Honors 2012 (9pm, BET) - Gabrielle Union hosts the tribute to successful black luminaries, including Maya Angelou, Stevie Wonder, Spike Lee and the Tuskegee Airmen.

Smash (10pm, NBC) - Derek makes the audition process rigorous for Karen and Ivy. Also, Eileen looks for financial backing and Julia and Frank hit bureaucratic obstacles with their international adoption plans (this storyline is the weak link in this otherwise entertaining series).

Castle (10pm, ABC) - In part one of a two-part story, Castle and Beckett work with the CIA as they hunt a killer who's connected to an international conspiracy, and the case reuintes Castle with a female CIA agent with whom he shares a past.

Not in Our Town: Class Actions (10:30pm, UNC-TV) - A look at students and communities joining forces to confront hate and bullying. Included: efforts to stop University of Mississippi football fans from chanting "the South will rise again," and the development of an anti-bullying program in Lancaster, California, after several teen suicides in nearby communities.

Ted Danson the new star of "CSI"

The big news: Ted Danson is heading to "CSI."

The big question: Is this something that could finally get me to try to watch at least one full episode of "CSI?"

Danson is best known for his comic portayal of Sam Malone on the long-running NBC sitcom "Cheers," and then spent six years heading the CBS sitcom "Becker." But Danson can definitely do drama, as fans of "Damages" can attest (Danson was nominated for an Emmy for playing the rotten CEO, Arthur Furbisher). Danson also currently stars on the HBO series "Bored to Death," and he's absolutely hilarious there, and makes occasional appearances on Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

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