The NBC series “Hannibal” finished its third season August 29 with its two main characters, serial killer Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham, clinging to each other as they tumbled off a cliff. (A rather on-the-nose cliffhanger, no?) That may very well have been the perfect symbolic end for a show that this season was tossed away by its network. The way NBC abandoned the show was shocking, especially one that just last year New York magazine called “the best drama on network TV.”
Why was a show that never had good ratings but had critical hosannas discarded so? And why were there no other takers? Netflix, Amazon, and other outlets passed on picking it up. Even the Kickstarter rumors that showrunner Bryan Fuller suggested might save the show thus far have not come through. All the actors have been released from their contracts too so it looks like the show is as dried up as Dr. Chilton’s chances for an Aveda endorsement. So what happened? How did this show die such an unfortunate death?
NBC reduced its viability
Fuller admitted going into this season that NBC informed him that it would be its last at the network. Perhaps as a shot at a stay of execution, the network moved the show from a spring premiere to June, hoping that the summer season would give it less competition. But its premiere ratings numbers were dismal, and the second week it sunk even further. Then NBC announced it was canceling it with 11 episodes yet to air. How they’d expect the ratings to hold with such an announcement defies credulity. Soon afterwards, they weren’t even showing previews of coming shows. They further turned their backs on “Hannibal” by moving it from its Friday night slot to the wasteland that is Saturday evening. There, it struggled to maintain an audience of a million viewers. Such shoddy behavior made the show all the less viable on paper to potential buyers.
The show imprisoned Lecter too early
Those viewers still remaining with the series likely started to see some aesthetic reasons that may have led NBC to turn a cold shoulder to the program as well. In the firs two seasons, Fuller’s vision fascinated viewers with his fresh take on the backstory of “Hannibal the Cannibal.” The show presented Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) as a free man, living the life of a bon vivant, and consulting with the FBI on various cases. Special agent Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) did not yet know of the mad man in their midst. It was fun for viewers to witness this bad doctor helping them profile a killer who turned out to be Lecter himself. But by the end of the second season the jig was up and Lecter fled the States. At the start of season three he was on the lam in Europe. Then midway through this season he was captured. With Lecter in jail the show started to resemble all the movies done about him already. Incarcerated, the character became inert, and suddenly the show started to feel that way too.
Stories were rehashed
Not helping this season was revisiting old storylines like those from “Hannibal” the movie, “Hannibal Rising” and the very first Lecter story, that of the Red Dragon. That’s where Lecter and Graham first appeared on the pages of author Thomas Harris, and that crackling thriller had already been done twice by Hollywood. First, Michael Mann made the great “Manhunter” in 1986, and then Brett Ratnor rendered a so-so remake in 2002. In the first two seasons Fuller took great leeway with Lecter lore but this season he was too loyal with the source material. Was the over-familiarity of the storyline to blame for a lot of viewers giving up on the show? Perhaps. There was a lot of grumbling about it online, and it seemed with such tropes “Hannibal” was starting to rehash too much of the tried and true from before.
Bryan Fuller moved onto a new show
One can imagine that NBC couldn’t conjure up the same enthusiasm for “Hannibal” with Fuller starting to develop a new series for Starz based on Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods.” And indeed at times during the third season, Fuller’s crackling wit and dialogue seemed to be absent. The extended torture of Dr. Chilton by serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), AKA the Red Dragon, was rather gratuitous for a show that kept most of its hideous violence off screen. Yet, starting with the season finale last year, “Hannibal” started to become positively bathed in brutality. Fuller’s show originally was more about criminal psychology than crimson. Did too many commitments force him to let others take the reins and they let it run red with blood?
The screen time for the leads was severely reduced
The two leads, Mikkelson and Dancy, were almost relegated to supporting roles once the Red Dragon story took over. In particular, the reduced screen time for Dancy throughout this season was shocking. There was one episode where he was completely absent, and others where he barely showed up. And throughout this season, he spent more time chatting with Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s psychiatrist/lover Bedelia Du Maurier than he did bantering with Mads’ mad doctor. Fishburne’s presence seemed reduced to a cameo at times too. Granted, he was busy starring in “Black-ish” all season long as well, but the third season suffered from not having enough of him in it either. And as good an actor as Richard Armitage is, he never made Dolarhyde particularly interesting. His grunting and monotone delivery rendered him a rather dull villain. His outsized back tattoo seemed to have more breadth than the killer’s personality.
Other elements may have contributed to the downfall of “Hannibal” as well. The show’s macabre visual scheme was always exquisite, but it started to dominate the hours in ways it hadn’t in the past. The obsessive slow motion of gushing gore not only felt too garish, it felt like fetish. And there were logic problems too. Dr. Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) was thrown out of a second story window in the climax of the second season, but she was walking around without a cane by the middle of this season. Du Maurier remained a free woman this season even though she certainly would’ve been incarcerated as Lecter’s European accomplice. And the dialogue started to play too on the nose even through the last episode. “The bluff is eroding”, Lecter coyly told Will at their hideaway on the aforementioned cliff after their ruse to catch Dolarhyde backfired.
Maybe “Hannibal” will get another shot. Fuller has teased the possibility of a big screen effort, but that seems unlikely all things considered. Finding investors for a vehicle that had such ratings problems will be a tough pitch. And some of the other issues the show had in its third season may frighten away more. In the final analysis, the autopsy may show that “Hannibal” was a once truly wonderful feast for horror fans whose third helping was just too hard to swallow.