The secret of Hannibal’s failure

Getting upset because Your Fave™ didn’t get an Emmy nomination is a fool’s game, yet it’s something I do every year. (Outrage is good for the skin! … Maybe.) Mainly, however, the reveal of this year’s Emmy noms, featuring narry a one for Hannibal or its extraordinarily able stars, has opened up an old wound for me:

I mourn the critical success that Hannibal never was.

A combination of internal and external factors mean that ‘Hannibal’ may have wooed a hardcore army of fans, but it never wooed the critics or the general public.

Premiere in May April, rue the day

There’s little doubt in my mind that ‘Hannibal’ would have been better received if it had premiered in January. Its April air date cut it off at the knees, making it not quite a midseason show, not quite a summer show. Unfortunately, many people (me included) were reluctant to pick up a show that was warming up just as a number of other shows were reaching their boiling points during May Sweeps.

(In short: who cares about subtle, mid-season manoeuvrings when there’s crazy finale drama going down on the other channel?)

First is best

Even more unfortunately: if you find new territory and stick a flag in it, it’s yours.

It’s galling that The Following, a show that is quite simply Not Very Good, attracted more than double the ratings of Hannibal. Maybe it’s an oversimplification, but I believe The Following’s success was mainly due to the fact that… it got there first! In the genre of “good cop goes after charismatic serial killer”, it trumped Hannibal with timing.

The Following may not have received glowing reviews, but it received a huge amount of buzz about centring a TV show around a serial killer. By the time Hannibal’s air date rolled around, what was there left to say? And what viewer felt they needed to add another “serial killer show” to their already packed schedule?

Square peg, round hole

You can place the blame for Hannibal’s lack of viewership on poor network choices (and, boy, scheduling it after Parks and Rec was a strange choice, wasn’t it?), but a lot of its problems were also internal. It’s a show that was clearly pitched as a procedural – yet it never really worked as a procedural. The weekly case file aspect felt forced and unfortunately reminiscent of Criminal Minds, which is now way beyond stale.

For the first half of the season, the show grappled with its Serial Killers of the Week in a manner that was at times ungainly. Hannibal is a show which at its best is supremely stylish and subtle – but those qualities didn’t really come to the fore until the latter part of the season. Unfortunately, I think critics and audience alike tuned out before they ever got to see the masterclass in writing, acting and composition that was the Hannibal season finale.

(I checked Hannibal’s ratings for the first time while writing this article: 4.3 million people watched the Pilot; 2.6m watched the sixth aired episode; and 1.9m watched the finale. Um. Ouch.)

Bad luck and bookkeeping

Hannibal’s failure can be explained in part by simple bad luck. Pulling the episode #1.04 (Œuf) in the wake of the Boston bombings was certainly necessary, but it deleted from the show’s history one of the strongest early episodes. Œuf was the episode that most succinctly summed up the season’s themes of family and Stockholm Syndrome. Without it, the early episodes feel disjointed, and it seems no coincidence that Hannibal’s ratings began to drop off at this point in the season.

Bad luck. Poor scheduling. Ungainly narrative construction. Whatever the reason for Hannibal’s “failure”, I’m here to set a few things straight:

1. It’s much, much better than The Following

2. It shouldn’t be watched directly following Parks and Rec. Ever.

3. It’s not really a police procedural – and it becomes more enjoyable when it sheds this pretence.

4. Mads Mikkelsen really was robbed of an Emmy nomination. (I can’t find on youtube the scene where Hannibal seems distraught over Will’s deteriorating mental state – until he’s left alone, that is, at which point, he suddenly seems to be considering a wonderful puzzle. But, boy, it’s remarkable acting.)

4 thoughts on “The secret of Hannibal’s failure

  1. As always, a brilliant summation of why “Hannibal” was overlooked. I also think it didn’t help that it aired opposite “Scandal,” which blew up, ratings-wise and buzz-wise, in the spring. If “Hannibal” had veteran competition, it might’ve garnered more notice — simply by being “new.” But its competition was a sophomore surprise hit.

    I believe in this brave new world of TV, IMO, broadcast network shows have to be on for the whole year AND be consistently good or buzzworthy to get attention, IMO. And with this increasingly crowded field, I do feel like the window of opportunity for b’cast network drama performers to get noticed is getting smaller. You have to make a HUGE splash. It used to be that a network drama could be low-rated and still garner awards. I no longer believe that’s the case — i.e., both “Hannibal” and “Parenthood” (which was also on for only part of the year). Low ratings only get you wins on cable anymore. :(

    • Now you mention it, Hannibal’s short run probably was a big reason it was overlooked.

      I saw on tumblr someone comment that if Hannibal were on a cable network, it would have been nominated. Out of interest, what are your thoughts on that?

      • Hmmm. I wanted to say it depends on the network, but then I remembered Vera Farmiga got nominated for “Bates Motel” on A&E.

        I hate to make that kind of generalization, but I do think the “cable audience” is used to a drama like “Hannibal” more than the broadcast nets. I don’t know if you saw the excellent article on the A.V. Club about “Hannibal,” but it said that it’s the antithesis of the network crime drama — that it’s the only drama that maximizes the horror of death vs. minimizing it. Death is incidental on crime dramas, but on “Hannibal” it would seem to be the main focus — in all its uncomfortable, frightening, horrific glory.

        Knowing what types of drama with which network audiences are comfortable, I do wonder if it might’ve been a better fit on cable. Either that or on NBC 10 years ago. “Hannibal” strikes me as a “Homicide”-type show — it’s edgy and gritty and something you put on to prove you’re not just mainstream popular comedies and hospital dramas. In other words: because you can afford it. NBC can’t afford to build their quality mantle when they’re hanging on to viewers via a weekly football game and a singing competition.

        I also don’t think it’s the type of show that can grow an audience — which is ideal for cable. They get their ratings off syndicated repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS” — they don’t care if their original programming is lower-rated, especially if it garners them critical praise.

        So, I guess to sum up my long-winded answer with a short analogy: “Hannibal” on NBC is like a homeowner buying an Oriental rug. It’s going to make your house automatically look better, but it’s not going to cover up all the split wood on the floor or the paint peeling on the walls or the roof that’s about to collapse. If that makes any sense. :)

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