Word broke this week that NBC’s Hannibal won’t be returning for a fourth season, much to the dismay of the show’s small but extremely dedicated fan base. Everyone’s favorite cannibal stirs strong emotions in fans, with speculation about the cancellation already swirling — two likely explanations are a rights issue or the show’s low ratings. Producer Bryan Fuller says he felt supported by NBC throughout the run of the show in a public statement stressing an amicable decision, though he was backed into a bit of a corner, as no one wants to be seen biting the hand that feeds them. (Except, possibly, Hannibal Lecter.)
The cancellation of the show marks a low point for US television, as Hannibal stood out from a crop of mostly mediocre programming and boring productions. The extreme violence of the show was perhaps the most striking characteristic, and not for the reasons cited for Game of Thrones — it’s not about shock value or making a dramatic statement for viewers, violence for violence’s sake.
Hannibal perfected artful violence, the depiction of scenes with a strange kind of ethereal beauty. The goal wasn’t a gross-out festival to turn readers off, but a kind of body horror intended to spark commentary. Hannibal explored horror as art form, turning away from the often misogynist and casual violence that usually characterises programming of a similar ilk; Game of Thrones and True Blood, for example. That line can be a difficult one to walk, and Hannibal succeeded, for the most part, even with the most gruesome and troubling of scenes.
It was also a brilliant character study, showcasing Fuller’s creative abilities as he plunged deep into a prequel to the events of the larger Hannibal franchise. Even as the show sometimes swirled with deep, intense confusion, characters stood out as they traversed their own arcs and grew into the people they needed to be to propel the series forward. Hannibal is a story not just of gore, but of people, with Fuller wisely focusing on character development over all else, rather than giving into the cheap temptation of relying on violence to carry the drama. The decision to pull away from a simplistic episodic formula and to use a more elongated form of storytelling provided more room for building arcs and characters, illustrating how tight 13 episode seasons are almost freeing for creators who want time to delve into their characters. Hannibal gave viewers a chance to watch people evolve over time, rather than sending them repeatedly back to the starting line.
Hannibal was also beautiful, with meticulous cinematography, sets, costuming, and characterisation. It was brilliant, with fantastically crafted scripts and settings, providing immense dramatic range for the characters. Everything on the show was thoughtfully and carefully placed and used, right down to things that looked casual; Hannibal was a deliberate, artful show. In many ways, the programme was also incredibly experimental, something Fuller himself noted in his appreciative commentary on the network’s support — NBC continued to carry the show after it became evident that Hannibal was unlikely to explode in the ratings, and in the face of horrific violence that might have led some television executives to blanch. The network was willing to experiment with something that considerably pushed the envelope.
It cannot be said that NBC didn’t at least try with Hannibal before ultimately making what may have been a very difficult business decision — but still one that had to be made.
Fans, however, are already clamoring for the show’s return, complete with the inevitable Change.org petition and a hashtag — #saveHannibal — to mobilise around. Fuller has voiced his support for loyal #Fannibals — because there’s a hashtag for everything — and discussions are afoot among those eager to brainstorm ways to bring Hannibal back from the dead. It’s telling that television fans are beginning to demand the return of beloved programmes with every cancellation, a strategy that was starting to feel rather old — the resurrection of Jericho marked one of the few times viewers succeeded, and even then, it was only the most token of efforts — but that’s something that’s starting to shift, thanks to the explosion of new media.
Netflix in particular has led the way when it comes to picking up canceled programmes and breathing new life into them, recently championing Arrested Development. Hulu, meanwhile, has brought back The Mindy Project. Streaming services are attempting to establish themselves as legitimate content providers with their own original programming, raising the prospect of seeing the return of other programmes canceled before their time — they apparently seem determined to surmount the problem of low ratings. The move follows in the footsteps of companies that historically picked programmes up from other networks, as seen with Buffy’s shift to UPN after Warner Brothers lost interest.
Hannibal isn’t likely to return to broadcast, but it may stand a chance with Amazon, Hulu, or Netflix. With many of the show’s fans active online and preferring streaming media, that may not be a bad thing: They are on the front lines of a media revolution that’s changing the way people engage with television. We may yet enjoy years of delicious meals if the film’s producers, who are also eager to see more Hannibal, get their way.
Yet, even as the revival of canceled shows on streaming services raises some hopeful prospects, it needs to come with warning caveats, too. Should viewers succeed in forcing every single canceled and beloved show onto streaming services, including programmes without much staying power, such services may reach a stretching point with their resources, making it impossible to sustain every single program that fans can’t bear to say goodbye to — even if it’s possibly time to do just that.
For Hannibal, a revival makes sense, but other programmes may be better left dead. Viewers — and producers, along with streaming executives — are going to need to learn to tell the difference if resuscitation on streaming media is going to retain long-term viability.