One would be hard-pressed to find any similarities between two crime procedurals hitting the box this week: ABC Family's new series Stitchers, which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, is cute and so slight in dramatic gravitas that it floats away into the ether.

The reverse is true of NBC's surreal Nietzschean parable Hannibal, which returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Thursday. One of the most unremittingly dark, vicious stories about murder, Hannibal enthralls the viewer's aesthetic sense with its stunning photography, sophisticated use of imagery, and breathtaking beauty while at the same time threatening to steal away our soul, dragging it deep into the void.

Temporal trouble with a girl

Let's begin with the light.

Kirsten (newcomer Emma Ishta), the heroine of the enjoyable, underwhelming procedural Stitchers, is a bright, beautiful, and impossibly young doctoral student in something-to-do-with-computers at Cal Tech. She seems to have everything going for her, except she has no family and no friends. Or any emotions, for that matter.

Kirsten suffers from some mysterious malady, which makes her incapable of experiencing time - or, it seems, feelings. She also tells people whatever is on her mind and doesn't care if she hurts them. She's prime to be supersized into a superheroine.

This comes by way of Maggie (Eureka's Salli Richardson-Whitfield), who heads a supersecret NSA program that has developed a sci-fi-y way for an observer to enter the memories of the recently deceased. It involves lots of computers and a big fish tank with a chair in it.

For the process to work, the observer must have . . . the same mysterious disease Kristen has! After some arm-twisting, Kirsten signs up, and she's sent to sit in the fish tank.

Surrounding her are a dozen scientists and geeks, none of whom look older than 19. (It's a show for tweens, yo.) They are led by Cameron (Kyle Harris), a dreamy boy who is supposed to be a psychiatrist who talks Kirsten through her missions.

The pilot has Kirsten and Cameron solving a bombing, and the second episode has the team tracking down the people who killed Kirsten's dad.

Stitchers, which costars Warehouse 13's Allison Scagliotti as Kirsten's sarcastic roomie, is frothy fun. But not much more.

The black stag roars

So, is Hannibal fun?

That's not exactly the word I'd use to describe the infernally clever - and cleverly infernal - creation of writer-producer Bryan Fuller.

Transfigured from the Thomas Harris novels into a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of the evils that can befall the human body and soul, it's thrilling, brilliant, and addictive.

It's also repulsive. Reprehensible. Demonic.

Critics have called Hannibal Lecter's narrative a horror story. But as the NBC series proves so adeptly, Hannibal is disturbing not because of the violence, but because it's such an effective example of moral horror. Mainstream horror reminds us how fragile we are as physical entities. Moral horror, how vulnerable, how corruptible our moral compass.

For the last two seasons, we've seen Hannibal Lecter (a profoundly seductive Mads Mikkelsen) kill and munch his way through scores of people, all the while setting up his friend FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) as the killer.

But Hannibal is so much more: He acts as a crucible, taking in the vulnerable and turning them into killers.

Last season ended in an ocean of blood: Will convinced his colleagues (Laurence Fishburne and Caroline Dhavernas) he was innocent and Hannibal guilty. But the cannibal gets away after attacking all three.

The world of Hannibal opens up considerably in season three: Hannibal is living the good life as a Dante scholar in Florence with his former therapist Bedelia Du Maurier (a radiant Gillian Anderson), both terrified and enthralled by him. Bedelia watches in fascinated dread as he wastes his first victim in Italy. I imagine we all are a little like Bedelia.

In between the violence, Hannibal waxes philosophical.

"Ethics becomes aesthetics," he says of a world devoid of God. "Morality doesn't exist, only morale."

The season opener is devoted entirely to this odd couple.

Will enters in the second episode. He survived Hannibal's attack and is determined to hunt down the evildoer. If Hannibal is evil, does that mean Will is good? He spent much of last season trying to befriend Hannibal, the better to catch him. He encouraged Hannibal to feed him his philosophy - and willingly ate human flesh at Hannibal's table.

In hopes of understanding Hannibal better, Will heads out, first to Italy, then to Hannibal's homeland (Lithuania in the novels), where he encounters one of Hannibal's most fascinating devotees, the stunning Japanese beauty Chiyo (Tao Okamoto).

It looks like love at first sight. Will is intrigued even further when he discovers that Chiyo holds prisoner in a dungeon beneath the Lecter chateau a man from Hannibal's past.

Oh, what awful, delicious sighs await this season!

I pray, as I always do before each episode, to be spared the sight. To be spared having to witness this show.

Then I peek.




Series premiere at 9 p.m. Tuesday on ABC Family.


Season premiere at 10 p.m. Thursday on NBC10.