NBC, NBC, NBC, this is Friday Night Lights all over again! Except substitute the brilliant, psychopathic cannibal and his equally smart, albeit manipulated, pawn for the story of football and life in the town of Dillon, Texas. Remember what happened with FNL? It’s arguably one of the best-written shows to be on network television in recent history, but it’s difficult to garner much of a following when you’re relegated to a Friday evening timeslot. That’s when the deal with DirecTV came in, and its final season (5) aired early for those with the on-demand channel, and six months later on NBC in 2011. The whole thing was a mess, but thankfully Friday Night Lights didn’t attempt to pander to its audience with outrageous ploys for ratings (save that Landry thing in S2 we just don’t talk about). FNL, instead, knew the odds it was up against and kept writing a great show with dignity, heart, Southern sensibility, and—hands down—the best portrayal of marriage to grace the silver screen. Coach Taylor and Tami forever, y’all.
Perhaps with how the landscape of television viewing has changed, though, Hannibal’s airtime at 10/9 EST on Fridays isn’t quite the death-knell it used to be. With Hulu, an iTunes Season Pass, and/or Amazon Prime (where the whole first season is streaming), a show can offer proof of its clout when all of the viewing sources can be taken into consideration. Hannibal’s creator, Bryan Fuller, attributed Hannibal’s return in season two to a groundswell cry from the fans and critics, aptly named “Fannibals.” What I can’t seem to wrap my head around is why this incredibly artful, gripping show isn’t on absolutely everyone’s must-watch list in light of True Detective’s runaway success.
When I initially reviewed the first episode of True Detective on HBO for this site, I compared its use of the stag motifs to those abundantly featured on Hannibal. Watching the two in succession, it was hard not to wonder how True Detective could so blatantly co-opt the central motif of another show. Although that wasn’t my sole critique of True Detective, its first season was certainly not without merit. Much of the praise is well-deserved: the cinematography was beautiful, McConaughey’s acting was superb, and that long-track shot in “Who Goes There,” (episode four) was a mind-blowing feat in filmmaking. Now that it’s ended, though, and Hannibal is running headlong into episode three of its second season, it’s worth examining where True Detective failed, and how Hannibal has been here all along—fully delivering as an intellectually engaging, menacing, well-crafted series.
The incredibly high ratings for True Detective certainly point towards the mini-series’ potential longevity for HBO. Perhaps that’s contingent on the casting and conceit of its next “season,” but they’ve built up a reliable fan-base with this first showing. What excites me most about True Detectives’ success is that it’s legitimizing the mini-series form for mainstream viewing. Sure, American Horror Story has tapped into this a bit—but the show as a mini-series cannot be entirely self-contained when the core cast is the same from one season to the next. This inevitably leads to drawing links between characters played by the same actor from the original, Asylum, and Coven. With True Detective, the promise is that season two will bring an entirely new story and cast, and that’s an exciting prospect for the form itself.
After watching Jane Campion’s fantastic miniseries Top of the Lake, I wished more directors would opt into telling their stories through this particular subgenre. It allows for a subtle mastery of characterization within a world we know we’re only going to be entering for a short time. The form cannot rely on gimmicky twists and turns to open up avenues for plotlines to be used in later seasons. The miniseries exists on its own terms, and the framework of this assured end points to an artful unraveling, a kind of novelistic finale. It sets itself up as a kind of promise to be delivered, and while this has not been the most economically lucrative model for television in the past, HBOGO crashing during season one of True Detective’s final episode suggests a new televisual horizon is drawing near. There is a dignified art in knowing when to call an end to things. I’m looking at you, Dexter. More than that, though, we live in an era of Hollywood sequels, trilogies, even tetralogies, that depends on squeezing every last drop of money out of audiences for entertainment franchises that often don’t have the steam to craft a string of high-quality films. There is something to be said for deliberately short-form work that opts out of this mentality.
In my view, though, True Detective didn’t live up to the promise of its ascribed form. The final episode defaulted on pointing towards the hackneyed, inbred character (with a British accent?) as the purveyor of many of the egregious crimes in the series. Was he “The Yellow King?” That’s been a persistent question in many of the finale recaps, but it didn’t feel entirely relevant by the time the credits rolled. The entire conspiracy of this extended Louisiana family responsible for ritualistic killings and rapes seemed to fall by the wayside, with the insinuation being that those in power never get their due (or perhaps because there were so many perpetrators there wasn’t enough time in the series to address all that had been set up). That, however, wasn’t even the most problematic aspect of the show and its subsequent finale for me. By the time Rust and Marty are chasing Scarface through Carcosa, the show had succeeded in piling on so many allusions to mythology, religion, mysticism, and the plentiful red herrings of the plot (what was up with Marty’s daughter, for one?) that a show with a lot of promise ended up opting for, at base, a predictable conclusion that hid beneath unanswered entanglements—which, unfortunately, many have labeled as highbrow complexity. Top of the Lake didn’t have a perfect ending, but it also didn’t rely on the intrusion of the speculative (e.g. Carcosa’s cosmos) or the unsurprising, literal pursuit of Our Killer (Eral) through a bayou-tastic maze. This is not to say all endings ought to be neatly gift-wrapped. The argument is, rather, that an ending that steers away from the original promise or conceit—the mystery—in favor of fruitless confusion, is not the kind of ending to celebrate. In my view, the fans of the show were concocting more elaborate and compelling suspects and endings in their predictions for the finale than what eventually came to light onscreen.
Perhaps that’s what has shocked me the most about Hannibal’s struggle in the ratings. It is delivering on its promises; its characters are complex and twisted (see my initial review of TD for my skepticism regarding the characterizations of Rust and Marty), the dialogue isn’t forced—though it shares the same kind of meditative quality that many appreciated in True Detective. Moreover, the acting is superb with a stacked cast headlined by Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelson, and Lawrence Fishburne. This season introduced Cynthia Nixon to the show, and Michael Pitt is scheduled to become a regular of sorts. Meanwhile the cinematography is haunting, with beautifully shot montages of Hannibal (Mikkelson) cooking up what we can only assume to be human flesh in manners that perversely entice the viewer. It’s a psychological, if not psychosexual, goldmine of great television. Even the ancillary characters’ subplots are tightly wound and compelling.
Fuller has realized a show that refuses to fall prey to tropes, in electing to tackle the “serial killer” story from within—as opposed to an outward, distant pursuit. The unraveling is predicated on what we know from Hannibal—who always seems to be a step ahead—as well as from what he’s withholding. We’re privileged in the information that we’re given in this dramatic irony. The writers’ unique challenge is in balancing how much knowledge the viewer is privy to without feeling cheated, or without diluting the show’s maddeningly good twists. It’s a precarious line to walk, and they’re walking it admirably well. We know from the very title of the show who we’re dealing with. Hannibal Lecter is a part of our cultural lexicon. It’s a testament to the show’s writing that it can not only capitalize on our idea of Lecter, but continue to push the envelope on horror (and they’re really pushing it for a show on NBC). This is not to say the show is reliant on gore or shock value. The relationship between Agent Will Graham (Dancy) and Lecter (Mikkelson) is one of the most fascinating currently on television going far beyond the showy tricks of power plays, word games, and deception. At their relationship’s center is an abject infatuation with the others’ demons. The show functions as more than just morbid intrigue or mystery; it’s a smart and incisive inquiry into something far more novel than the procedural “criminal mind”: it questions the limits of psychosis and sociopathic behavior, it speculates as to one’s capacity to empathize with conditions that are inherently devoid of compassion, and—as the show progresses—the limits of memory, recollection, and influence.
One of the most exciting things that happens when a show strikes a chord with the public is a sense of collective experience—a phenomenon that is shared. True Detective tapped into that feeling, and while I am of the opinion that its astoundingly great critical reception is not entirely deserved, it is always worth applauding any work of art that can so effectively intoxicate people en masse. With that being said, those shows that bring a mode of artfulness to the table that exceeds the level of more popular equivalents should be fought for, and Hannibal is precisely that corollary to True Detective. It’s by no means a perfect show (what on earth is?), but Hannibal ought not be cut short before its time when it clearly has the smarts and depth that define this Golden Age of television.