We are in a golden age of television. We are also in an age of excess. As such, we often have to pick and choose what we watch, because we simply don’t have enough time to watch everything that is good. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of great shows slip through the cracks. As a fan of TV, who watches much more TV than the regular person, I am always sad to see some of the best TV shows slip so far beneath the radar that they become obscure and unknown. In an effort to improve the standing of some of these “lost” shows, I have decided to create Spotlight, a new Feature series at TVEnthusiast. Spotlight will be a regular article series that, with each iteration, pleads the case of a different series that has somehow slipped under the radar.
I have debated with myself over Hannibal’s inclusion in Spotlight from the moment I first conceived the feature. We talk about Hannibal a lot, the TV media talks about Hannibal a lot, and a very loyal fanbase talks about Hannibal a lot. So why does Hannibal get included in a feature series about shows that flew under the radar? Because it seems that, besides the small groups mentioned, nobody else even knows the show exists. This odd phenomenon is worth exploring, I told myself, and so now I will, explore.
Hannibal is based on a 4 book series by Thomas Harris. In particular, Hannibal is primarily focused on a piece of backstory within the first novel in the series, Red Dragon. While the larger case of Red Dragon is eventually explored, and elements of the other novels find their way into the series as well, Hannibal’s greatest strength is is Showrunner Bryan Fuller’s (Pushing Daisies) exploration of a tiny portion of the first book. In the books, and the movies based on them, Will Graham figures out Hannibal Lecter almost immediately, and Will and Hannibal’s relationship is primarily limited to Hannibal seeking revenge on Will from behind bars. In Fuller’s Hannibal, Will Graham comes into contact with Lecter when he is at a weak point in his life, and the series focuses in on the relationship between the 2 characters as friends, who also happen to be opposing forces. Hannibal Lecter is a sociopath, a cannibalistic serial killer obsessed wtih high society. Will Graham is a man “gifted” with pure empathy, a trait that allows him to empathize with both victim and perpetrator, a trait that serves him well in catching serial killers for the FBI. Unfortunately, Will’s “gift” comes with a cost, Will teeters on the edge of a metaphorical knife, 1 push away from becoming a monster himself. In order to help Will cope with his recent work, he is referred to Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lecter quickly becomes fascinated with Graham, and Lecter’s fascination is not exactly a good thing.
What Makes Hannibal so Good?
So what makes Hannibal such a good series? The simplest answer is that it is impeccably made. The writing, the performances, the cinematography, the art direction, music, in just about every facet imaginable, Hannibal is amongst the best on TV. But outside of sheer execution, there is more to be attributed to Hannibal’s quality. For example, the series is, how should I put it, artistic? Surreal? Whichever single word you use to label the trait, it can best be described as being a series in which grounded reality is not only off priority, but nearly jettisoned entirely. Long elaborate dream sequences, hallucinations, even uniquely suggestive kaleidoscopic sex scenes. Paired with this surreal and dreamlike presentation, is cerebrally poetic writing, and brilliant misdirection editing. Some might see what Hannibal does as pretentious, but pretentious means that it is implying a greater importance than it merits, and with Hannibal, this is not the case. I am averse to using review aggregates to support a claim of quality (I believe that divisive content is often the best, if you fall on the like side of the divide), but in the case of Hannibal, the show’s second season achieved a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an incredibly rare achievement.
Why Couldn’t the Series Find Success Where the Films Had Before?
So with massive critical acclaim, so much chatter among TV critics, and such a strong fanbase for the series, I am often perplexed that most people don’t even seem to know the show exists. I frequently walk around wearing a rather iconic Hannibal shirt, iconic enough that people stop and stare trying to figure out what it is, since they feel it must be something they know. My shirt has been recognized twice. For context, I routinely wear geeky shirts, and am constantly getting nods and comments, even for extremely geeky fair, like The Evil Dead. With my Hannibal shirt, I seem to only get looks of confusion. Upon such a look, I will chime in, and say it is for an NBC show called Hannibal. The near universal response to his is another look of confusion. Second to that, surprise that there is a TV show based on those movies they loved, almost always followed by doubt that it could be any good. Personally, I find this reaction to be the most telling. Silence of The Lambs was a phenomenally successful film, that has remained significant in the minds of the general populous. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most iconic, and known, characters in all of fiction. So why is the NBC series such an unknown thing to so many people? My personal theory is that the mere concept of a TV version of a beloved film property creates an instantaneous bias against it, especially when the films were quite graphic, and the show is on network TV. Adding to that, is the doubt that Hannibal could be represented by anyone other than the Hannibal they remember, Sir Anthony Hopkins. Both of these are immediate, and entirely inaccurate, assumptions. Most fans of the show that I have talked to seem to think that Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Lecter is superior to Hopkins’, that Richard Armitage’s Dolarhyde surpasses Ralph Fiennes’, and that Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham is light years beyond portrayals by Norton and Petersen. As for the graphic violence, many i have introduced the series to where genuinely shocked that this was not an HBO series. Hannibal doesn’t hold anything back, at all. So, to answer the topic question, in my anecdotal experience, Hannibal is immediately, and mistakenly, dismissed as being something much lesser than it actually is. Fans of the original movies are often reluctant to give the series a try, but in my experience, they tend to become huge fans of the series if/when they eventually try it.
Why Wasn’t Such a Critically Acclaimed Series Saved?
So this is another rather complex issue. Upon NBC’s cancellation of Hannibal, a number of video streaming services (most notably Amazon and Netflix) immediately entered negotiations to pick up the series. All negotiations, however, failed. Why? Well, it takes a little understanding of the current streaming rights of Hannibal. Hannibal’s first 3 seasons are contractually exclusive to Amazon, with Hulu and NBC’s own site having rights to the current seasons (as in, they have rights when the season itself is current). Netflix was unwilling to acquire a 4th season, when they didn’t have the rights to stream the first 3. The same would be true for other smaller services. For Amazon, the story is a little different. Amazon already has streaming rights for the first 3 seasons, and they expressed interest in acquiring a 4th. Unfortunately, Amazon required a quicker production schedule than Showrunner Bryan Fuller felt was workable in maintaining the show’s quality. While this has spelled doom for the series, it is important to remember that, when it comes to TV, we live in interesting times. The X-Files is returning to TV after over 10 years off the air, as is Twin Peaks, after 25 years. In streaming, Arrested Development was continued by Netflix after the series had been off the air for 7 years. Cancelled does not mean over anymore, and Hannibal is no exception. At this years San Diego Comic Con, there was even talk of a possible feature film continuation. The cast, and Showrunner Bryan Fuller, are all excited for the possibility of more Hannibal, but due to other commitments, if we do get more, it won’t be for, at least, a few years.
Should I Watch Hannibal?
The simple answer is YES, it is currently the best series on TV, and has been since season 2. That being said, those who are troubled by graphic violence and/or stunningly tantalizing representations of cannibalistic cuisine, may want to steer clear. For everyone else, though, no more excuses, watch Hannibal.
The first 2 seasons of Hannibal can be streamed on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Eventually, season 3 will join its predecessors at Amazon as well. For now, episodes from season 3 are streaming on Hulu and NBC’s official website. The series finale of Hannibal airs this Saturday, August 29th, on NBC.
What do you think of Hannibal? Tell us in our comments, and stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more coverage of Hannibal (and yes, we have more in the pipe already), and all of your favorite shows.