Rich Heldenfels

Bates Motel, the new series on A&E, looks at the origin of Norman Bates, the Psycho character who ranks second on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest screen villains.

Now it’s time to look back at No. 1.

At the top of the AFI list is Hannibal Lecter, created on the printed page by Thomas Harris, and then rendered onscreen by Anthony Hopkins (in Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon and the big-screen Hannibal), by Brian Cox in Manhunter and by Gaspard Ulliel in Hannibal Rising. He is presented once again in Hannibal, a series premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday on NBC. But, while Lecter (now played by Mads Mikkelsen) is a prominent part of the show, its deeper interest is in Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).

You may recall Graham as the investigator at the center of Manhunter, where he was played by a pre-CSI William Petersen, or by Edward Norton in Red Dragon. In the new series (which includes some elements also used in Fox’s The Following), Graham has a knack for understanding serial killers — but getting into their heads has created problems in his own. While trying to deal with a difficult case, Graham connects with a therapist, Lecter, who could help Graham with his demons. Except, of course, Lecter has some quirks of his own — and they may not be all that helpful to Graham.

The series draws on even more pieces of the Lecter tales; fans will remember earlier incarnations of FBI man Jack Crawford (now played by Laurence Fishburne) and unscrupulous reporter Freddie Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki). And it wants to draw viewers in with both somewhat self-contained stories and serialized elements not only in the Lecter-Graham relationship but in that mystery which sets the series going.

I have watched a couple of episodes, and it is good at conveying menace and at the gloomy, brooding atmosphere for the characters. At the same time, though, Mikkelsen is so immediately creepy that viewers have to wonder why people are not more uncomfortable around him. And Dancy’s Graham is a muddle, sometimes more tearfully weak than just troubled, yet pretty free with a gun in the early going. Be also aware that the violence and crime scenes can be quite nasty.

At the same time, it seemed to work as pulp fiction. Although it passes neither Manhunter nor Lambs in my esteem, I wonder where it will go next. That said, this has not been a good year for many serialized dramas, including NBC’s Do No Harm, so be prepared that the show might not last long enough to end.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and, including the HeldenFiles Online, He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or