Yesterday, NBC canceled a show you probably didn’t watch. Or, rather, it expressly declined to renew that show, only three episodes into its latest season, ripping off the band-aid early and saving any will-they-or-won't-they renewal drama. By now, this is a familiar story, especially on NBC. It could have been Kings. It could have been Sean Saves the World. It could have been Awake. But this time it was Hannibal, one of the best, most innovative shows currently on TV.
This story has an even more predictable next act, which is already underway: behold, the #SaveHannibal hashtag, the change.org petition, and all-caps pleas from showrunner Bryan Fuller. Usually this part is sad and depressing, because it tends to be a lose-lose situation: fan campaigns to save canceled TV shows rarely work, and when they do the result is almost never as good as the original run. But I've never been less worried about a show finding a new home, or more excited to see what comes next, because Hannibal is special.
I've never been less worried about a show finding a new home
Streaming services have recently been reviving supposedly dead series frequently enough to be a legitimate trend, but not just any show can get resuscitated. With each returned series it's become easier to identify what Hannibal Lecter might call the recipe for such returns from the industry dead. In most cases, there's an intensely devoted fan base (Community), a sense of uniqueness surrounding the property (The Mindy Project), and, perhaps most important of all, a business arrangement that allows a streaming service to step in with minimal hassle, particularly when said service is already hosting the show (Longmire). Explaining how Hannibal fulfills all three also serves to tell potential new viewers just what kind of meal they've been missing out on, and why they might do well to join in on calls for another course.
Anyone who hasn't seen Hannibal and knows it only as "NBC's Hannibal Lecter show" might be surprised by the collective mourning from the show's rabidly cultish fans, but it's got all of the ingredients for devotion. Fuller's showrunning sensibilities run toward the weird and lovable (check out the delightfully macabre fairytale Pushing Daisies, the series he made before Hannibal), and the characters he has created here are powerful and fresh riffs of the done-to-death Hannibal Lecter story.
No matter your attachment or indifference to the source material, Hannibal is a thoroughly unconventional masterclass in adaptation. Pick up one of Thomas Harris' novels or watch Silence of the Lambs, and you will see the ways Fuller has picked out the deeper themes of what are, essentially, decent crime novels and movies, and transformed them into something richer and far more unsettling. In Harris' Red Dragon novel, Will Graham is a former FBI agent plagued with an uncomfortable ability to empathize with serial killers and a passing, violent acquaintance with the captured Hannibal Lecter. Here, as played by the dashing Hugh Dancy, he's an emotional wreck caught in a tangle of emotional intimacy and psychosexual struggle with Lecter.
The show digs into the old trope that any good detective is just a few steps away from becoming a criminal and refuses to let go, insistently exploring what that actually means. In part, the show owes that depth to Mikkelsen's portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, who here is a much more credible and terrifying monster than his cinematic counterparts — a model of restraint, an otherworldly being who is both seductive and undeniably inhuman. But there's also the way in which the show and its impressive art department treats its murders as literal works of art — baroque, bloody works that command respect. We know who Hannibal is and what he does, but we want to spend time him anyway (or at least ship him with Will).
By the premiere of its third and current season (of which there are still 10 episodes yet to air) Hannibal had just begun to fully escape the gravity of its initial premise, tossing aside practically all trappings of a cop procedural. The season premiere found Hannibal and his former therapist Bedelia du Maurier (Gillian Anderson — yes, she's in this show, too) wandering around Italy and appreciating its natural and culinary beauty rather — nothing so staid as "catching a killer." When I interviewed him this year for The Guardian, Fuller described the show in its current form as a "pretentious art film from the ‘80s."
Fuller is the primary reason reason to stick with the show and root for its continuation (he's got a six-season roadmap for how to tell a complete Hannibal Lecter story), as well as its best shot at finding another life. He's used to creating aggressively beloved shows that are snatched away too soon, with series that have been canceled after one (Wonderfalls) or two seasons (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me) — if they even made it to series (the 2012 pilot-turned-TV-movie Mockingbird Lane). In one sense, it's a miracle that Hannibal even made it to a third season on broadcast television, especially considering how far has positioned itself from previously existing genre conventions.
And by that logic, as great as Hannibal is, it's really not that surprising that it's being cut loose — NBC has a long history of terrible decisions, but canceling Hannibal wasn't one of them. The viewership for Hannibal, at least by the statistics that matter in making these sorts of calls, is pretty awful. The network did a pretty decent job marketing a show this off-kilter, and let it run far longer than any Bryan Fuller series thus far, let alone one this violent, complex, and homoerotic. It just couldn't thrive on NBC — like Arrested Development being booted from FOX in 2006, it might just have been ahead of its time.
In a press release about the cancellation, Fuller notes that "a hungry cannibal can always dine again." He's played coy about the likelihood that his continued interest in a fourth season will be actualized, but it's really not so hard to imagine. The licensing fees for the show are reportedly so low — Entertainment Weekly cites the number at a mere $175,000 per episode — that even a Kickstarter could maybe pay for a couple of episodes. It's been perpetually in danger of cancellation, to the point where Fuller had a plan in place at the end of season one. And Amazon, which has made strong inroads into original programming recently, already has exclusive streaming rights to the show.
NBC literally let them show a man cutting off and eating his own nose
Look, there are 10 weeks left to watch the third season and see if Fuller will pull a fourth together. I'm confident he will. But even if this is truly the end for Hannibal, we'll be thankful in a few years — the most influential series are often the shortest lived. Hannibal has been bold enough to blow up much of the playbook for what is and is not acceptable on broadcast TV — NBC literally let Fuller show a man cutting off and eating his own nose. So even if Hannibal goes down in history as another show that left us too soon, it can rest easy knowing it left an undeniably purple, permanent knife mark on TV history.