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As elegant as it is dark, as smart as it is merciless, NBC’s Hannibal is the best show on TV right now, and quite possibly the scariest one ever made.

If you haven’t tried this brilliant bloodfest (or is it -feast?) because, after four Thomas Harris novels and at least as many movies, you fear saturation with Baltimore’s most famous cannibal, please please please allow this review to persuade you that Hannibal is very much telling new stories, and that you should give them a try.

If, however, you’ve shied away from the series because you don’t want images of high-def murder most foul playing behind your eyelids, I cannot in good conscience advise that you plow on ahead. “The Redeemable Adventures of Jack Crawford, FBI” this is not.

Showrunner Bryan Fuller’s previous efforts include Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, so you can see where his head’s at, but while this pre-Red Dragon story runs with Fuller’s visuals-a’poppin’ production design, it inhabits a far bleaker, meaner world. Even post-True Detective, this is its own animal.

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Hugh Dancy stars as the insightful but unstable Will Graham, who can read (the world’s worst) crime scenes like books and get inside the minds of the predators behind them, which is where the true sickness lies — not in the actions, but in their motivations. The killing, as Anthony Hopkins once purred, “is incidental.”

Throughout last year’s first season, a rapidly unraveling Graham was haunted by what could most accurately be described as an evil spirit animal. A hallucination of a dark stag (expecto patronaaaaaa!) stalked his subconscious, slowly transforming into a bone-chilling humanoid demon with antlers that he came to realize was the devil-as-Dr. Lecter.

Too late, however, and now Graham sits in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, framed by Hannibal for crimes he did not commit. Season two begins, then, with Will trapped inside while death walks abroad.

The March 7 episode opened on a man who has been kidnapped by a serial killer and given what should have been a lethal dose of heroin. No such luck for this victim, a recovering addict, who awakens to find his naked body stitched into a huge human mural with scores of others, all dead. He rips free, literally, leaving chunks and splatters of skin and viscera behind, before being chased — still nude, and now wounded and bleeding — by his armed hunter through a deserted car lot and then a cornfield.

The sequence is as white-knuckle intense and graphic as anything you’re going to see in an R-rated horror film, though the aftermath is perhaps even more twisted.

Renowned psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter, you see, has been asked by the feds to replace Graham in helping locate the lair of the killer, and he does, but on his own time and for his own purposes. He gazes down at the fortysomething bodies, arranged by skin color to resemble an eye peering up at the heavens, and then he is interrupted by the deranged muralist returning to his design.

“Hello,” one monster greets the other, “I love your work.”

As played by a gimlet-eyed Mads Mikkelson (best known as Le Chiffre), Lecter is a dapper and genteel sonofabitch, sliding silkily from helping catch murderers to committing many a murder of his own. Why does he do it? Partly because we are all sheep and he is a wolf. Partly because, as an avid student of human behavior, he loves watching reactions when the gore starts to flow. And partly because people look absolutely scrumptious.

The pun is intended when I say that Hannibal has great taste. The sets and costumes are positively outstanding, the lighting and camera work superlative. And at least once an episode, we’re treated to a meal at Lecter’s table, which is sumptuous food porn even when the food in question is you or I.

Omigod, the things they eat on this show: jamón ibérico that looks like it cost more than my first car, pâté so rich you could leave a thumbprint on it … we left fava beans behind long ago.

A montage this month featured Hannibal the Cannibal preparing slices of bone-in human leg as if it were veal osso buco. He coated it in flour and braised it (you know, to lock in the moisture), he spiced it delicately and bound it in twine, and when he took it out of the oven it looked … like the most delicious human you’ve ever seen. Fortunately, most of the food on this show is actually food.

“What a beautiful presentation, doctor,” Crawford (a wonderful Laurence Fishburne) said in the season premiere when given a breathtaking plate of sashimi. “I almost feel guilty about eating it.”

“I never feel guilty eating anything,” Lecter replied.

Minutes earlier (and 12 weeks later — flash-forward alert!) the two men were locked in mortal combat in, naturally, Lecter’s kitchen. Using folded steel knives so classy and menacing they could come from Williams Sonoma’s enhanced interrogation collection, Crawford and Lecter sparred like assassins out of a Bourne movie in this fight sequence, which served as a “glimpse of things to come” cold opener for the second season.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0lOYxAEUHk

The contrast is clear: the civilized and refined mixes in every Hannibal episode with the nightmarish and base. The show doesn’t just send postcards from the dark extremes of the human psyche, it’s doing a full topographical survey. The title character represents what happens when evil — evil with a penchant for the finer things — is allowed to flourish.

His wickedness has grown into intricate, baroque shapes, like crystals or coral left undisturbed, while the man himself walks around pretending to be one of us.

“I’ve had to draw a conclusion based on what I glimpsed through the stitching of the person suit that you wear. And the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that you are dangerous.”

The above line brings to mind Buffalo Bill, the Silence of the Lambs antagonist whose hopes and dreams are enough to make your soul shudder, but it was spoken to Lecter himself by one of the few characters who can see his mask slipping. She’s right, of course, but that danger is the pulse that keeps this show going.

Banished to Fridays at 10 pm, Hannibal is meant for DVRs, and DVR it you should. Directors the caliber of Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, and Ridley Scott have toyed with these characters before, but Fuller might be having more fun turning graveyards into narrative playgrounds.

Just don’t watch it on an empty stomach.

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