The “Bryan Fuller Curse” has struck once again with the cancellation of NBC’s Hannibal. For many people watching the show, this comes as no surprise — a lack of advertising, a bad time slot, and being on NBC is the trifecta for getting axed. However, there are a few other reasons why Hannibal was too beautiful to live on American television, and they’re not exactly what you might think. Warning, there be spoilers beyond this point.
Although each season has its own theme (the first examines the effects of watching violence), the core focus of the story is the relationship between Hannibal Lecter, psychologist cannibal extraordinaire, and Will Graham, the man who will eventually catch him. While it would have been easy to simply write a continuous cat-and-mouse chase between these two, the show opts for a different approach, one where an unlikely friendship develops.
Where this differs from normal television is in how the relationship doesn’t have any overt sexual tones, nor is it the buddy-cop style “grab a beer and punch each other in the arm instead of emoting.” Instead, the friendship shared between Will and Dr. Lecter is similar to the one Hollywood reserves for women, where best friends are built up through deep admiration and respect, where feelings and emotions trump inevitable betrayals. This brotherhood is uncommon between two TV men, that there is no question people bailed as a result of it. So few of us experience such a deep friendship in our own lives, that to see it for once portrayed on screen clashes with the entire culture we have had built up around us.
Where I see deep bonds of friendship between the main characters, I know others have seen strong romantic feelings. Thanks to the magic of Hannibal, neither of us are necessarily wrong because the show is based around allowing viewers to form their own opinions about the actions and goals of characters.
Gillian Anderson’s character, Bedelia du Maurier, is one of the best examples. While in a therapy session with Dr. Lecter, the tone of her voice, coupled with some innocuous comments about expressing oneself, could be seen as if she has some suspicions as to what Hannibal truly is. On a second viewing — especially after the second season’s cliffhanger where Bedelia and Lecter abscond to Europe — this scene can take on the sinister overtone of group therapy, where she appears as an equal to Hannibal, just with different tastes and methods, encouraging him to unleash his inner monster. Yet another viewing could bring about the idea that she is simply an unwilling participant, forced to watch Hannibal commit these acts yet unable to do anything for fear of her own life.
Every character exists within shades of grey on this show, and it can be absolutely maddening to suddenly have everything you assumed about a character suddenly change. Audiences simply are not used to the idea of treating a television show the same way one does a Salvador Dali painting.
Come to think of it, Hannibal shares another interesting trait with Salvador Dali paintings, in that it offers utterly insane visuals. Often compared to scenes found within David Lynch films, there are moments in Hannibal that exist on a completely different level then what we are used to on television. There’s a scene midway through the third season where Alana Bloom, a woman who previously had romantic ties with Dr. Lecter and Will Graham, has sex with Margot Verger, a former patient of the good doctor. Instead of being gratuitous with nudity, the scene is instead done through visual effects to appear as if viewed through a kaleidoscope. It’s certainly trippy, but it also has a very specific meaning. It’s a cathartic release for two characters who have recently discovered each other, and the pain of horror they have been subjected to mirrors the other’s.
This relationship hadn’t been suggested previously, aside from a possible errant glance a few episodes beforehand, but as these two woman copulate on screen, the viewer is given the entire explanation as to how and why they ended up together without having to sit through hours of subplot. Even Twin Peaks never went this far with its audience, putting in odd formless visuals meant to create questions and bring about thoughts. This idea, when placed beside the ambiguity of character, only served to confuse people.
For a show that constantly portrays death and the human relationship to it, Hannibal is actually about how beautiful life is. The taking of any life, especially those of monstrous men, is the ultimate sin. It puts characters on paths that will ultimately destroy either them or the relationships they hold dear. The series truly kicks off when Will Graham shoots serial killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs in the heat of the moment — a decision that haunts him both mentally and physically, while also starting the avalanche of destruction that accumulates over the course of the show.
Over time, this idea plays out a few different ways, but is especially driven home by the time Dr. Lecter’s secret is thrust into the open. A delicate dance has been woven where all the main characters are out for Hannibal’s blood; however, they are now twisted, and appear closer to everyone’s favorite cannibal rather then the decent human beings they once were. Consider that for a second: this is a show that advocates for lawful justice rather then vengeance on a man who kills hundreds of people. No piece of pop culture does that anymore. Even Tomorrowland, Disney’s kid friendly, happy-go-lucky film about building a better, happier world, had to kill the villain off so that characters could progress.
Finally, if Hannibal has one major sin that made sure people weren’t going to watch, it was the decision to avoid any sense of redemption for Dr. Lecter. Terrible source material like Hannibal Rising (bless it’s odd little heart) tries to justify killing and eating people. On the show, all of that information is made pointedly irrelevant. It does not matter whether a young Hannibal endured a tragedy that set him on this path: the only thing relevant now is that he is a monster who feeds both his curiosity and appetite. Even the trope done by previous huge television hits like Dexter, where there’s a sense of relief at seeing a bad man do bad things to even worse people, is avoided. In Hannibal, there is only a bad man doing bad things.
There is absolutely nothing about Dr. Lecter that should redeem him in the eyes of the viewer, yet you can’t help but care for him. There’s still something entirely human about him, despite the murdering and eating of people. You hope, much like Will Graham does, that there is a happy ending out there. Even when Hannibal finally turns himself in — only one episode after almost eating Will’s brain — there were genuine tears in my eyes because the good doctor makes the choice to wait for his best friend to come to terms with his actions. He’s not asking for forgiveness, just acceptance, and as a viewer, you are more then willing to give it.
In the end, Hannibal asks tough questions of the viewers, and there are few people in this world who might like the answers.
Article by contributor Byron Letourneau-Duynstee.
4 thoughts on “Why Hannibal Could Never Survive on American Television”
Well said. Hannibal is a strange show in that to truly experience it, you shouldn’t question the story developments and character motivations and just embrace the dreamlike atmosphere it creates.
Damn good article. I love this show and at first i was plenty upset at its cancellation, but thinking about it I’m glad it at least gave me 3 seasons to re-watch. I also don’t have to worry about the eventual decline of quality the show would have to face as it got a little long in the tooth. This season is moving a little too fast for my taste but what choice does it have?
This makes a lot of sense. It really sucks that the same reasons I love the show so much are the reasons it has to die. But at least it’s been a hell of a good ride, and looks like it’ll end on a good note. I also can’t really hate NBC for doing what they did to the show because without their desperation, the show never would have been on the air nor would it have lasted 3 (fantastic) seasons. It just sucks that we’ll never be able to see the rest of Fuller’s Red Dragon, and what he could have done with Silence of the Lambs.
I agree with everything you said above, but still, Hannibal should still exist because of these reasons. There is nothing like it on television, which is shocking since it’s a series on network television, and Amazon passing on the series is a mistake. I’ve accepted the fact that Hannibal has three, final episodes left, with the possibility that the Red Dragon story-line will be wrapped by the end of this season. Bryan Fuller does have another television series in the works (American Gods), so that is something to look forward to.
I hope that Hannibal does return in some format in the future. A film or miniseries?