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If consumption is the lowest common denominator of economics, then NBC’s captivating show Hannibal depicts its epitome. Consumption is shaped by desire, and Dr Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal psychiatrist on whom the show is based, is a creature of desire (and trauma). He possesses God-like genius: he is not just forensic psychiatrist, but also surgeon and chef. He listens to classical music—we first see Hannibal dining alone with Bach’s Goldberg Variations playing in the background—and is effortlessly charming. He can make fat paisley ties in a Windsor knot look the acme of cool, he sketches and plays the harpsichord, and he is a master culinarian. He quotes Socrates to suggest a patient commit suicide, he uses a Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen, and you won’t find anything as vulgar as a laptop on his desk. Hannibal is, in effect, a composite from the pages of Esquire.
While in the Thomas Harris books, Lecter is described as a small and slight man, not especially attractive, in the show, as imagined by series producer Bryan Fuller, everything about him—from Mads Mikkelsen, the actor who plays him, to his silk cravat—looks gorgeous. He’s an aesthete with the physicality of an athlete. The fact that he’s also a serial killer with a taste for human flesh is presented as part of his aesthetics.
Anthropophagy is an old taboo, although ritual cannibalism, especially to establish hierarchies of power, has never been uncommon in human history. And Hannibal is a powerful man, an alpha who eats people because he wants to, and because his social situation allows him to, discreetly and with relish. In fact, not only does he eat people, he gets pleasure from feeding exquisitely cooked human flesh to the unwitting. And they all close their eyes and go “mmm, delicious”. If there’s an unspoken pact of trust between the cook who prepares the food and the person who eats it, then Hannibal sadistically subverts it.
His is the perfect seduction—in almost every other episode, the show will draw you in with a fantastic-looking foie gras or a lobster in a melon before hitting you with a lung in wine sauce with grilled baby tomato and onion, wild mushrooms and tomato toast. Human lungs, that is, harvested from a grisly kill in some previous scene. Fittingly, the first season’s episodes were named after courses in French cuisine, the second season after Japanese. The third, beginning 4 June on NBC, will have episodes named after Italian dishes.
Hannibal has its very own food stylist, Janice Poon, and she is a star with a wildly popular blog called Feeding Hannibal. In it, she describes the diabolical dishes in every episode, then tells us in detail how she went around approximating it with legal meat (pig liver looks surprisingly like human liver, and veal tastes the most like human flesh, it seems). She also shares recipes and invites readers to send in theirs. For expert advice, the show consults the award-winning chef, José Andrés. The result is A-grade food porn.
Within the show, there are discussions on the morality of hunting and killing for meat. One serial killer makes it a point of honour to utilize every last piece of his victims. Another character questions the need to kill a beautiful creature like a deer or a human being, for any reason whatsoever. However, to my mind, so far, the show hasn’t discussed these things enough. The fact that Hannibal scoffs at vegetarian cuisine, just like any dedicated carnivore in our midst, is a fantastic opportunity to investigate the politics of culinary habit, but the show seems too enthralled by Hannibal to go there.
Meanwhile, there’s a website that lists every dish from the series, not to mention a beautiful Hanni-cuisine Pinterest page. There are articles in fashion magazines on how to dress like Hannibal Lecter, chat rooms where smitten men are told how to style their hair like Hannibal Lecter and culinary sites that show how to cook like him. Ultimately, this shouldn’t be surprising. To a generation of TV viewers raised on the addictive visuals of MasterChef Australia, Hannibal is the logical next step. Just like in MasterChef, the standards are exacting, the meals are prepared with a fine eye for detail and a well-developed palette is king. Cooking schools, according to Australian news reports, saw their enrolments drastically increase in the wake of this series that took on global versions.
In his A Contribution To The Critique Of Political Economy, Karl Marx wrote, “Consumption furnishes the impulse to produce, and also provides the object which acts as the determining purpose of production. If it is evident that, externally, production supplies the object of consumption, it is equally evident that consumption posits the object of production as a concept, an internal image, a need, a motive.” The time seems ripe for a show like Hannibal. A culture of conspicuous consumption requires prospective consumers to view a houndstooth check linen blazer, cooking lung and loin Bourguignonne, enjoying fine wine and listening to LPs of Bach as an internal image, a need and a motive.
In an unquestioningly amoral culture of consumption for its own sake, the glossy glamorization of a murderous cannibal sits easily next to a copy of GQ and French Chianti. The story arc has a long way to go yet, but as we wait for the third season, Hannibal the cannibal remains the most marketable figure on television.
Bibek Bhattacharya is a senior editor with Outlook Traveller.