You can't help but get a deliciously squirmy tingle when the infamous (to the viewer, anyway) Hannibal Lecter quips, "It's nice to have an old friend for dinner" while serving tongue to his guests, including an unctuous and chatty shrink whom Lecter sizes up by coolly noting, "Your tongue is very feisty."
This scenario takes place several episodes into the midseason run of NBC's feverishly twisted, fascinatingly macabre and visually remarkable procedural-with-a-twist Hannibal (Thursday, 10:01/9:01c), by which time I was completely creeped out and thoroughly hooked. In much the same way A&E's Bates Motel introduces a younger version of Norman Bates before he had his crazy mama mummified in the cellar, Bryan Fuller's Hannibal presents the mad Dr. Lecter before his secret identity as a cannibalistic serial killer is known to anyone but his victims. He is caginess personified, taking on the role of advisor and therapist to tormented FBI profiler/consultant Will Graham (from Thomas Harris' Red Dragon). Will has an ability to project "pure empathy" and see grisly crimes from the killer's POV, which Lecter describes quite accurately as "an uncomfortable gift."
We share Will's discomfort — "This is bad for me," he laments to his boss, Jack Crawford (a grave Laurence Fishburne, so more effective here than he was during his CSI tenure) — and our unease isn't merely a result of the graphically freaky death tableaux he regularly confronts. As Will, Hugh Dancy draws us in with an emotionally raw performance as a socially awkward prodigy who relives and even mentally reenacts the horrible crimes. The show may be titled Hannibal, which for commercial branding purposes makes complete sense, but this is Will's story. And an absorbing, psychologically rich one it is, too — immeasurably smarter than The Following, more haunting than Bates Motel.
"You have a knack for the monsters," observes Hannibal, the deadly serpent in their midst, and Mads Mikkelsen brings a suave, inscrutable (if at times unintelligible) and playfully sinister edge to this iconically ghoulish gourmand. The episode titles have fun with the show's unsavory food fixation ("Aperitif," "Amuse Bouche," "Potage," "Entrée"), and I'd advise against making Hannibal your dinnertime companion. A show this extreme won't be to all tastes, quite obviously, but those with a predilection for elegantly Grand Guignol are likely to eat Hannibal up.
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COMEDY TONIGHT: It's midseason, a time when networks like to mix things up and give shows temporary (sometimes even momentary) tryouts on different nights, regardless of how confusing it can be to the fan. A more robust (though not like it used to be) American Idol lead-in is the other best explanation for why Fox is airing a very promotable, if not quite pivotal, new episode of New Girl on Thursday night (9/8c) that further explores the awkward dynamics of the game-changing Jess-Nick post-kiss situation. "Our relationship's so confusing," whines Jess (Zooey Deschanel), and it only becomes more so when Nick (Jake Johnson) haltingly asks her out to dinner. Even with Nick suited up for the occasion — a good joke right there — neither can admit or decide if this is actually a date. It's like Jess tries to explain to her bemused former beau Russell (Dermot Mulroney), who stumbles across them, "If a happening happens and you don't know that it happened, did it happen?" It so happens that Jess and Nick are adorable together, and their dithering chemistry is comic gold.
Fox's The Mindy Project also gets a special Thursday airing (9:30/8:30c) in a reverse-gender take on Pretty Woman, when Mindy discovers her latest crush (Josh Meyers) is a male prostitute and she decides it's good idea to give him a makeover before escorting him to Danny's dinner party.
Another transplanted sitcom, NBC's Go On, will play out its final episodes of the season this and next week, following The Office at 9:31/8:31c. This week, Ryan (Matthew Perry) counsels the lovely Lauren (Laura Benanti) on her own mess of a love life. ... But the real comic draw of NBC's lineup is a road trip for Leslie and Ben on Parks and Recreation (8:30/7:30c) as the loving couple heads to his hometown of Partridge, Minnesota, to get the key to the city. Does Pawnee even have one?
On CBS' hit comedy lineup, there's conflict among the geeks of The Big Bang Theory (8/7c) when Sheldon, Leonard and Raj battle it out to get tenure. ... Guest-star alert on an especially icky-sounding Two and a Half Men (8:31/7:31c), with Jaime Pressly returning as Jake's amorous cougar girlfriend, whom Jake naturally cheats on with her 18-year-old daughter (Emily Osment), whose own ex-boyfriend is played by Scott Bakula. I'm not sure Hannibal is this creepy.
Saddest comedy news of the night (though still funny): FX's uproarious Archer is almost done for the season. In the first half of a two-part finale (10/9c), the ISIS team goes in search of an H-bomb on the ocean floor, too close to the Bermuda Triangle for a drunken Archer's comfort, while Cheryl's half-a-billionaire brother Cecil tries to elicit testimony from her co-workers about the level of her insanity. ("Shut up, John Williams!" Cheryl screams, as the sinister soundtrack music revs up.) That voice you hear as the episode reaches its cliffhanger ending belongs to Jon Hamm, who's about to become much more visible starting this weekend when a new season of Mad Men premieres.
PEOPLE OF INTEREST: We've been waiting for her to come back, and how exciting to report that Sarah Shahi is returning to CBS' Person of Interest (9:01/8:01c) as the mysterious and lethal mercenary Samantha Shaw. Like a female Reese, and possibly even more driven, she provided this excellent season with one of its high points when introduced in February. Also heard from again: Enrico Colantoni as the master criminal Elias, apparently still behind bars.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: Carrie Underwood, one of American Idol's greatest success stories, returns to Fox's singing competition to perform on the results show (8/7c), along with Season 9's Casey James (remember him?). ... It's still winter on CBS' Elementary (10:01/9:01), as Sherlock and Watson battle a nor'easter and robbers. ... My favorite episode title of the week comes courtesy of ABC's Scandal (10:02/9:02c): "Molly, You in Danger, Girl." I don't know what it means, but I can't wait to find out.