At this point it’s still unclear if Hannibal will be picked up by a different distributor after Season 3 is over or if it is finally done. While waiting for the final outcome, I took this as an opportunity to write down some musings about what we will miss when the show should not be continued.
Of course we fans will all yearn for the gripping storylines, the eccentric characters and the actors and actresses who played them, the artfulness and the gore – but what less obvious elements are there underneath that contribute to the uniqueness and will suddenly be sorely missing from the TV landscape as a whole?
After some pondering I compiled a list of four rare, unique elements from Hannibal that barely any other show can boast with and which are worth to be continued and preserved.
One would be…
#1 …a glamorous villain we can identify with
Creating a glamorous over-the-top villain is an art that seems to be an art long lost, on TV as in the movies. Even the Bond series, famous for its extravagant baddies, is serving rather mundane bad guys nowadays, including Mads Mikkelsen’s one-dimensional “Le Chiffre” from Casino Royale, ironically. Skyfall‘s attempt to reintroduce a more flamboyant antagonist ended rather embarrassingly.
Today’s villains are -not unlike the modern heroes- grim, hot-headed and without any hint of style. Being goal-oriented and focused is all fine and dandy, but what is wrong with playing a little with fire, like bragging in front the good guy about your devious plans which you execute in a maybe too complicated and elaborate, but very artful and spectacular fashion.
Unfortunately this tradition seems to have thoroughly vanished from the screen, as there is nothing like (secretly) identifying with a villain or villainous anti-hero. Yes, I am aware that there have been a few anti-heroes that occasionally crossed the line to fully-fledged villain in recent TV-history, but it’s not the same.
Walter White from Breaking Bad is basically a tragic figure, a man who is more or less -sometimes less- forced by circumstances into becoming a ruthless criminal. There are, on the surface, some parallels between Hannibal and Dexter, yet they are completely different cases on closer inspection.
Undoubtedly, both main characters represent to a part wish fulfillment fantasies. But while Dexter is a vigilante who mainly eradicates the major culprits and/or scapegoats of popular middle class fears, folks that are easy to hate like child molesters and rapists, Hannibal has a more complex personality.
Of course he killed a few very bad people and some at least very rude ones nobody will shed a tear about as well, but he also tricked an innocent girl into setting herself on fire, imprisoned a female FBI agent for years just to mess with Dr. Chilton and killed a few other innocents, all for selfish reasons like his own amusement. The major difference between him and Dexter is that the latter struggles with his “dark side” and redirects it into punishing deviants, akin to a more self-aware version of “Jigsaw” from the Saw movies, while the former no only fully embraces, but also indulges in it and turns it into a lifestyle. Not only the eponymous lead character, the whole series celebrates the glamour of evil. This show is refreshingly not about judging lowlifes from a moral high horse for a change, it’s about wallowing in the dark pits of the soul and the mind without regrets. Even a pathetic child molester like Mason Verger is an irritatingly complex and interesting character in whose fate we get invested.
In short, one could say that Dexter is a square while Hannibal is…
#2 …the last “Dandy” on screen
Yet another archetype of cinema and literature that is sorely missing nowadays. The dandy – whatever happened to him?
The man with the refined tastes and manners, who indulges in the beautiful things life has to offer and pertains a distanced, original view on society, not caring what others think of him? Hannibal might be the last of this kind, otherwise we mostly get brooding, hard boiled (anti)heroes like in True Detective or self-righteous a-holes like The Mentalist or House MD as male leads on TV. Sure, Hannibal can be quite a smug fellow too, but he is missing the judgemental moralist attitude that makes me want to turn Hugh Laurie and Simon Baker into roughly estimated 20 baking plates of meat pasties. No, Dr. Lecter always sells his condescension with style, originality and enough wit and esprit to make it amusing, not only for the audience, even for his victims – who, with the exception of Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard), disappointingly rarely show a sense of humour about it though. Nobody nailed that mix of elegance and cold-bloodedness topped with darkly humorous remarks that perfectly since Roger Moore retired as 007.
“You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal. You have aesthetic ones.” “Ethics become aesthetics.”
This line is from an exchange between Bedelia Du Maurier and Hannibal from the episode “Antipasto” (Season 3, Episode 1) and it is very much in the vein of the Uber-Dandy and figurehead of the aestheticist movement Oscar Wilde’s idea that artists should be free of moral restraints and the limitations of society, an ideal that Dr. Lecter has undeniably internalized and taken to new extremes. Wilde’s principle of “L’art pour l’art” or “Art for Art’s sake” is also reflected in the visual style of the series, that is designed as pure aesthetic delight and while it is heavy with symbolism, it does not have to be understood or analysed to be fully enjoyed, but leaves it up to the audience to choose if they want to just be lulled in by the imagery or prefer to puzzle over its meaning. Which is very refreshing in times when directors think they have to hide the film’s or show’s message in pretentious visual riddles.
And that is not the only detail that distinguishes the show from other recent outputs on TV and in theatres because…
#3 …it’s a show that does referencing and homaging right.
The pop culture of this decade is made up of at least 50% references and homages and we reached a point where it really gets annoying. Back in the 90s when this postmodern approach was still comparatively fresh, there was a lot of fun to be had, thanks to young directors like Tarantino and Rodriguez, masters of referencing, deconstructing and reassembling source material in original ways. Nowadays though, in the age of reinventing and revitalizing old movie franchises, referencing has degenerated into a storytelling crutch and a cheap way of buying some fan cred for studio hacks.
Apparently we are supposed to react like a Pavlovian dog to the sound of an actor or actress du jour spewing the same overused one-liner for the 5th time in the reboot of a classic or be overjoyed by every lousy plot or visual reference the film makers throw us as a bone. But neither is it very witty or original to have Arnie say “Yippie Ki Yay” and Bruce Willis “I’ll be back” (hint: it is actually kind of sad), nor does showing off the knowledge of basic trivia, like knowing what the expression “red shirt” means for example, signify a deeper understanding of the essence of Star Trek as it has been painfully proven.
Sadly, many people seem to enjoy that kind of cynical pandering and see it as a service to the fans, while it is truly just a lazy device to trigger memories of better films to make us forget the garbage that is poured over the screen in that very moment. It also serves as window dressing fake respect for the source material, even if it’s anything but that. But if you want to drink the Kool Aid it’s fine with me, just finish it and leave no drop, because I want none of that, thank you. I don’t need to accelerate the process of pop-culture eating itself.
Considering this, it is even more surprising how inspired the homages to the source material in Hannibal turned out to be. Well, here I am pushing the boundaries of my capabilities as an amateur reviewer a little, because I cannot really put my finger on why it works so well and that’s why I have to speculate.
Admittedly a lot of it has probably to do with the Hannibal Lecter saga being, despite its popularity, a little less overexposed in pop culture than a franchise like, let’s say Ghostbusters, so certain elements from the book might still come over as fresh. Apart from that, a good part of the appeal may stem from the fact that many of the references are just used in a different context, but in a very organic and unforced fashion. They are integrated in the storyline in a meaningful way and don’t stand out as alien elements or gimmicky moments.
It seems that Hannibal pulled off the impossible and made references and homages exciting again. And that’s not all, as the show accomplished another minor miracle because it is…
#4 …”Intelligent Escapism for Adults”
Is that even possible? Can these words even be put into the same sentence?
“Intelligence” and “Escapism” seems to be mutually exclusive nowadays, well…well… because “fun”, “Leave your brain at the door”, etc., etc., you heard the platitudes, you know the drill. It seems that if you are not capable of shutting off your brain, you are not worthy of being a member of the church of uncritical consumers of cinematic/TV fast food garbage, the official religion of the “fun” regime. Thinking how the term “Adults” could possibly fit into that equation is a lost cause, an endeavour not worth undertaking, I think we can agree on that.
Sure, TV has been offering more entertainment for grown ups recently, but how many shows have truly escapist qualities, not to speak of ones that don’t insult our intelligence? Current adult-oriented series like Ray Donovan or True Detective are grounded in gritty realism and despite of the pulpy qualities of the latter, both revel in misery that is based on real life – problems the audience can often involuntarily and reluctantly relate to. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead would maybe qualify, but the former is set in a genre that is not to everyone’s taste while the latter is in fact a pretty grim-faced survival drama underneath. On top of that in both cases the applicability of the adjective “intelligent” can be disputed, ahem, and if a TV show should really feel like a trial of patience is also still up for discussion, ahem.
Is it bold to claim that Hannibal is escapist entertainment? I for one think it’s obviously escapist. The show is rich with tortured characters for example, but they almost never have to deal with mundane everyday problems the average viewer is forced to relate to. Like in a grotesque Gothic soap opera, all misery is darkly romanticized, from mental illness to death. Will Graham may be in constant mental pain, but the show runners sure try to convey how morbidly beautiful his suffering is.
Like I pointed out in #1, the Evil is relentlessly glamorized in Hannibal, disturbingly picturesque acts of violence and gore included. Serial killers are a very real phenomenon, but the way they are depicted here is a pure fantasy and the psycho babble is only vaguely rooted in “real” psychology, with some philosophical musings added as ornament. In the end, Hannibal could be described as a modernized baroque stage play or a dark fairy tale for adults with Dr. Lecter as the big bad wolf.
Not to forget that the formula “Sex and Violence”, another signifier for adult escapist entertainment, is fully intact, even if it’s rather presented in a slight variation I’d like to call “(Homo-)Eroticism and Grand Guignol”. This is all rounded out with some splashes of dark humour – one could say it’s “HARDCORE FUN”.
Don’t leave your brain at the door, let it fry in the pan.
These are a few things I will surely miss if Hannibal gets cancelled and I am curious if another show can fill those gaps.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you agree!
Also: Check out my article about 5 possible Hannibal Spinoffs
Or the 8 cannibalistic movie alternatives to Hannibal
You prefer listening over reading? Then check out my Hannibal podcasts Part 1 (movies) and Part 2 (TV show)!