by Lisa Rufus
The television series Hannibal (NBC 2013-), created by Bryan Fuller and based on characters from Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, has attracted much critical discussion due to the program’s amalgamation of the beautiful and the horrific. In this essay I will analyse criticism of the television series Hannibal that is being generated in the public spaces of online newspapers and how this criticism allows the audience to negotiate the nature of the series which focuses heavily on the artistic representation of the corpse and the aestheticisation of crime.
Hannibal gives its audience insight into a never-before-seen chapter of Dr Hannibal Lecter’s life. In the series we see Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen), who is often seen on film either incarcerated or post-incarceration, as a “practicing psychiatrist and a practicing cannibal” (Fuller qtd. in Goldman), before his capture and free from any investigative suspicion. He is employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to assist constructing a psychological profile after a series of gruesome murders and to offer psychiatric support to the mentally unstable Special Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). The series regularly features theatrically displayed and artistically framed corpses and crime scenes, and elaborately designed dinners consisting of questionable sources of protein. Hannibal loosely adopts a ‘serial killer of the week’ narrative structure inherent in most serialised crime-scene dramas but does its best to avoid what television critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls the “too-familiar elements” (Seitz) of the genre. The first season’s thirteen episode arc gives the audience more time to spend with the eponymous cannibal than was permitted by the previous texts, thus providing the opportunity to experience Hannibal’s morally deviant view of the world.
In their essay “Towards a History of Australian Film Criticism”, Tom O’Regan and Huw Walmsley-Evans defines the public space as one which “includes the journalistic review and critical essay spaces, whose ambition is to address a more generalised, less academically specialised, audience” (1). While there has been little written about Hannibal in academic spaces, there has been much written about the program in the public sphere. Although these public spaces are comprised of printed newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines, and television programs with segments dedicated to reviewing film and television, this essay will focus in particular on the critical appraisal that takes place in online environments such as online newspapers and entertainment websites.
The online environment greatly increases the ways in which readers respond to and interact with film and television criticism. The quandaries of the early 20th century including “[s]carcity and cost of paper, high production costs, and large capital and distribution barriers to entry” (O’Regan and Walmsley-Evans 14) do not plague the online environment, and the physical space that this form of criticism took up on the page is no longer an issue either. Richard Ericson, Patricia Baranek, and Janet Chan discuss how, in regards to print media, the “[c]ontent must always fit the format, and it is therefore always secondary to the format” (21), but again, this concern about space on the page is more relaxed in online publications. The value of online criticism can also be observed in its functionality. While “the newspaper is a visual medium, television both visual and audio, and radio audio” (Ericsson et al. 21), webpages combine the features of traditional media and are able to include video and audio clips, pictures, and text which provides the reader with a greater comprehension of the topic at hand. If Ericson et al. argue that “[t]he greater the capacity to bind messages to context, the greater the validation powers of the medium” (23), then the online environment must be superior to its predecessors. Maureen Ryan’s critique of Hannibal takes advantage of the online environment offering up pictures, text, a podcast discussing the series, and a slideshow gallery for readers to immerse themselves even further in the program. Hyperlinked ‘tags’ also let the reader find other instances of analysis of the program on the website.
Online television criticism provides a variety of functions for its readership and shares many similarities with that of the film review. Television criticism in the public space is understood as offering an “independent perspective” (O’Regan and Walmsley-Evans 2) on the object in question. The critic’s review is seen as separate from the marketing and promotional material manufactured by the network on which the program is aired and free of bias. Journalists, who “authorize themselves to represent people” (Ericson et al. 5), are also seen as an “intermediary” (O’Regan and Walmsley-Evans 2) or a liaison between the program and the audience. As the critical review sees its audience as a “prospective rather than retrospective viewer” (O’Regan and Walmsley-Evans 7) of the program in question, the journalist guides its reader through what to expect on the program and helps the reader decide whether or not to encounter the program in the first instance. O’Regan and Walmsley-Evans say that reviews, that “range in length and detail from the capsule review through to a more sustained and critical discourse” (7), are best produced and encountered “at the start rather than the end of a [program’s] release; not too early and not too late” (2).
In the case of Hannibal, many critics place themselves in between the program and prospective consumers as a sort of sentinel—warning those who may not have yet encountered the program who are unlikely to appreciate the level of violence and gore for which the program is known, and, on the other hand, inviting those who will. Maureen Ryan prepares her readers for the difficulties in watching Hannibal advising them that “it’s a challenge to stick with the show, which can be quite intense and disturbing” (Ryan). Television critic for San Jose Mercury News, Chuck Barney writes how the series “contains its fair share of blood and gore” (Barney). Alan Sepinwall gives his readers a brief example of what to expect, but does not explicitly describe the scene as other critics do, instead he alludes, “Fuller and his writers have clearly spent a lot of time devising nightmare-inducing imagery” (Sepinwall).
This relationship between the journalist and the consumer is closely examined in Ericson et al.’s chapter “Representing Order”. The authors describe how each participant in the news process function and how these functions sometimes overlap. In the public space of television criticism, the journalist also functions as “avid news consumers, obtaining most of their ideas for story assignment and angles from previous news stories” (Ericson et al. 14). The journalist must consume the television program in order to report on it. But while the audience member consumers the program either during its broadcast or on a time delay, the journalist does so ahead of time through the provision of a DVD ‘screener’ usually provided by the network. By the same token, “[n]ews consumers also function as journalists”, in the online spaces of criticism, consumers are able to provide their own views on the topic by leaving comments critiquing the article written by the journalist and also the program itself. These comments, although they have not been granted the same level of authority by the news organisation as that of the critic, are also an effective way of interacting with the program and gauging the audience’s response as consumers.
In one article in the Arts section of The Australian, Graeme Blundell comments on how the legacy of author Thomas Harris’ creation has left a “trail of imitators trafficking in sadism and unprecedented gore” (Blundell); while Blundell writes about the program Criminal Minds (CBS 2005- ), such is the current climate of the genre of television crime drama in which Hannibal can be found. Hannibal also shares its generic space with similar programs such as The Following (Fox 2013- ), Dexter (Showtime 2006-2013), and a host of criminal investigative procedurals—all of which aestheticise crime and criminal acts by the use of heavily stylised images and dramatic mise-en-scène. Much of the online criticism surrounding Hannibal mentions these other programs and frequently compares levels of violence and gore included in the narrative. Because the market is saturated with similar shows, Hannibal must distinguish itself from its competition and it does this through highly stylised imagery and by elevating the program to the level of an art object. Its edginess and brooding tone are standout features in this particular genre. In his critique, Seitz is quick to separate Hannibal’s style from the likes of The Following arguing, “[a]esthetically, Hannibal is the opposite of Fox’s smash hit serial-killer drama The Following, which treats the camera mainly as a recording device, dutifully tailing its heroes and maniacs, watching them fret, plot, and kill” (Seitz). Salon.com television critic Willa Paskin also notes the difference between Hannibal and other procedurals: “Tonally, “Hannibal” wants to separate itself from the procedurals that are crass and “unserious” enough to treat corpses like funny props” (Apr 2013).
Our long-standing fascination with crime dramas has emerged from the distance that viewing programs on television affords its viewers. Citing examples such as The Walking Dead (AMC 2010-), and Criminal Minds, Paskin says that “[u]ltra-violent TV and serial killers are having a very popular moment” (Apr 2013). Similar to how Yuriko Saito says we experience paradigmatic art objects, by watching the crime narrative unfold on television we too “are distanced from the object, both literally and metaphorically” (20). This distance allows for moral exploration but without the real life consequences that typically follow deviant behaviour. Programs like Dexter and Hannibal give us permission to root for the villain. They encourage moral ambiguity by creating characters that should be reprehensible in real life, but at the same time, perform the same functions as the police—they protect the community. Dexter only kills serial killers and works for Miami Metro Homicide as a blood spatter analyst who helps the police catch killers. Hannibal kills the rude and helps the FBI catch serial killers. Both men are killers themselves but their other qualities cause the viewer to constantly revaluate their moral standings. According to Aaron Taylor, this revaluation “is not simply moral interrogation, nor ethical revisionism; it is a complete reordering of one’s moral framework” (188). The three main characters in Hannibal represent this moral shifting that occurs while viewing the program: Jack Crawford is the morally resolute enforcer of the law; Hannibal Lecter is the darkness that beckons us to look closer; and Will Graham is the audience being pulled and pushed in between these two competing forces. The problem we experience with Hannibal is that he is exceptional and therefore an exception to the rule about how we are supposed to view villains. Hannibal is cultured, knowledgeable, and takes great care in his appearance. We forgive Hannibal of his cannibalistic trespasses because of these other qualities, his aesthetic appreciation for all things, and his genuine relationship with Will Graham. While other serial killers on Hannibal are contained within the narrative structure of the serialised procedural, the most reprehensible criminal, the ‘big bad’ of the series, is not. The moral order is only being attended to in part but we make allowances because of his character.
What draws some of us to programs like Hannibal and Dexter is the facility to experience the corpse as an art object. In her article, Stacey Abbott describes how serial killers on television are becoming increasingly aware of how their crimes are being experienced—these serial killers express “a meticulous planning and obsessive control over the mise-en-scène. Here horror is conveyed through the construction and composition of the mise-en-scène, which usually revolves around the dismembered, modified or brutalised body, presented as art” (Abbott). Within the diegesis, the artful crime scene is constructed for the aesthetic appreciation of the crime scene investigators and unfortunate members of the public who discover these crimes. However, extradiegetically, they are for the appreciation of the audience. The corpse is turned into something extraordinary for our viewing pleasure. The camera turns viewers into voyeurs while the dead bodies are “lingered over longer” (Paskin Apr 2013), allowing deeper contemplation of the object in the same manner as one would view a painting in a gallery. Television critic for The Guardian, Phelim O’Neill, seems to appreciate the artistic bent of the serial killers on Hannibal, he writes, “[…] although there’s a lot of death, it tends to be at the hands of a very artistic and creative bunch of sociopaths. We see most of their work postmortem, presented as distressingly surreal yet artfully constructed tableaux, such as a totem pole of corpses, or decaying bodies overgrown with mushrooms. In one instance a murdered musician is turned into a human cello” (O’Neill). A hyperlink to the latter scene is included in O’Neill’s critique which invites the reader to investigate image further.
The ninth episode in the first season of Hannibal, “Trou Normand”, begins with Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and Will on a quiet beach. The pale blue-grey sky is reflected in the ocean; waves lap at the shore. It is cold—both Jack and Will wear winter woollies. Will swallows a habitual Asprin and lets out a laden sigh at the sight of something only he can see, for now. A forensic team lay down yellow plastic markers alongside points of interest around a circle of seven graves—all recently exhumed. In the centre of the circle is a totem pole standing over three metres tall. The severed legs, arms, and torsos from seventeen dead bodies, all in various stages of decomposition, have been methodically harnessed with twine and rope to an erect wooden pole. Atop the totem is the most recent victim of this sadistic and prolific serial killer—Joel Marshall’s decapitated head is unnaturally wedged in between his feet; his mouth still agape in horror. The image is truly terrific.
Saito tell us that we “make various moral judgments […] regarding artifacts. We may condemn or praise the existence of an artifact depending upon the purpose for which it was designed and made […]” (206). The above image, while morally abhorrent, is also beautiful. It has been presented to the viewer as a piece of art. The careful colour-grading blends the sea and the sky; the dark blue FBI jackets are accentuated by light turquoise latex gloves. Trumpets and timpani lend their services to accompany an already foreboding scene. While we may condemn the scene’s construction on moral grounds and deem it as being unacceptable, we must also appreciate what we see as an aesthetic object. In the Japanese aesthetic tradition, Saito argues there is a “general lack of appreciating the sublime” (139). She reasons this to an “inherent challenge of experiencing the sublime when the phenomenon threatens our safety and very existence […]” (139). But this image does not threaten our safety, it is just an artistic representation of bodies and therefore we must permit its existence. At the end of the episode the totem’s creator is apprehended, the credits roll and we are left wondering: What spectacle will we see next week?
The serial nature of television grants the viewer this experience each week. “Serial killers kill serially” writes Richard Dyer, “one murder after another, each a variation and continuation of those before, each an episode in a serial” (1). This definition of serial murder is similar to Stanley Cavell’s regarding television soap operas that “feature a more or less endless narration across episodes, linked by crises” (81). With repetition comes “anticipation” (Dyer 1)—each week brings a new episode, we anticipate what new horrors will appear on our screen, and we have out critics to prepare us for what we may encounter. Hank Stuever from The Washington Post sees the repetitive nature of television crime drama as tedious: “Next comes the killer who buries his comatose victims in rich soil in order to harvest mushrooms growing out of their torsos. Then comes the delusional killer who sees people as demons, so he strings them up and uses the skin on their backs to spread out a pair of “angel” wings. This game of gross-and-grosser is more silly [sic] than haunting […]” (Stuever). Barney, however, sees the potential for Hannibal to be seen as more than just a genre show calling it a “superbly crafted, tantalizingly creepy tale that defies the conventions of TV’s follow-the-dots crime procedurals. It’s blessed with sharp writing, plenty of visual verve and hypnotic performances” (Barney).
Violence and the aestheticisation of violence, also feature heavily in Hannibal’s narrative and is a topic that is often discussed in the public spaces of online criticism. As mentioned earlier, one of the signature features of Hannibal is its artistic presentation of the corpse. Where in most television crime dramas dead bodies are found in dumpsters or ditches; the exhibition of dead bodies in Hannibal are described by the character Will Graham as “field kabuki” (“Apéritif”), being elevated “to art” (“Amuse-Bouche”), and possessing “elegance and grace” (“Sorbet”). Saito tells us while all objects are capable of eliciting an aesthetic response, not all objects are viewed as aesthetic objects: “[…] if they cannot or should not be appreciated aesthetically, the reason cited is usually not aesthetic, but psychological, or moral, or physical” (14). While some critics are able to view the program via the same distancing that occurs when experiencing an art object, others are not. In Seitz’s piece, he admires the stirring visuals and argues “Hannibal is the most beautiful series on network TV” (Seitz). Seitz uses this public arena to praise the program’s creator and art department in his beautifully crafted review by examining significant moments in close detail: “Throughout the series there are impressionistic close-ups that could be freeze-framed, blown up, and exhibited in an abstract art show: cream clouds in a coffee cup, roiling and spreading like nebulae in a visionary sci-fi film; time-lapse footage of fungi growing” (Seitz). While Seitz views, and subsequently reviews, the program as an art object this does not mean he is not affected by the violence and gore, instead he appreciates it as an integral part of the object: “The dismembered, impaled, and bullet-riddled bodies are splayed out with sculptural precision. Bloodstains well out like halos or wings” (Seitz). The way Seitz composes his criticism reflects how he views the program: he includes poetic elements such as alliteration and parallelism to describe certain scenes; his stylish rhetoric gently persuades his reader to explore the series.
On the other hand, Paskin views the program in a less-praising way. She sees the violent imagery as excessive and unnecessary: “As if being able to shock and upset people concerned with TV violence and/or titillate and astound people who thrill to TV violence makes the material edgy or wise, when, given the amount of ultra-violence one can find on a television these days, it’s really just boring” (Paskin Apr 2013). Paskin expands upon this subject in one of her subsequent articles “Why are TV serial killers so sexy?” (June 2013). Here she discusses how programs like Hannibal and Dexter set out to distinguish their programs from their generic cousins. The programs that feature serial killers as main characters who encourage the audience to sympathise with them are “so much more baroque and grisly than what typically appears on procedurals” (Paskin June 2013). It seems the problem Paskin has with these programs is that the level of violence depicted does not represent crime that occurs in real life “[t]he, violence these fictional men wreak is not just horrifying and bloody, it is inaccurate” (June 2013).
This dramatized misrepresentation of crime is also an issue that is echoed in Hank Stuever’s critique of Hannibal in the Washington Post. Stuever is frustrated that Hannibal does not address real life issues such as gun control. In his somewhat confused article he writes, “American culture has plenty of recent, real-life mass slayings to work with, mull over and reconcile — as well as a gun issue to resolve — but scripted television won’t go anywhere near that” (Washington post). But scripted television does go near that. For example, episodes of Revolution (NBC 2012-2014), The Walking Dead (AMC 2010-), Under the Dome (CBS 2013-), Scandal (ABC 2012-), The West Wing (NBC 1999-2006), and The Newsroom (HBO 2012- ) have all dealt with the issue of gun control in one way or another. In their book Representing Order: Crime, Law, and Justice in the News Media Ericson et al. closely examine why our “public conversations are dominated by talk of crime, law, and justice” (3) so it is inevitable that these public conversations enter into the programs we view. Stuever continues: “[i]nstead, the makers and fans of today’s TV crime dramas believe deeply in the sort of serial killers who barely exist in actual crime statistics (if at all) and whose handiworks more resemble installation art than homicide” (Stuever). But surely the fact that Hannibal is a work of fiction and is comprised of fictional characters is somewhat of a relief. Creator Bryan Fuller explains how, psychologically speaking, the character cannot exist in real life: “He’s not a psychopath, because he experiences regret, and he’s not a sociopath, because he experiences empathy, so he is a total work of fiction because those things don’t usually travel in the same herd” (Fuller qtd. in Van Der Werff). Hannibal Lecter is contained within the narrative and is kept at a safe distance from us but we still have access to the experience of the story-world through the television program and learn about situations that could be transposed into real life. In their study, Ericson et al. found that “[m]any people learn about law from exposure to television and other media of popular culture, not from direct experience in the legal system” (17). The investigative procedural give its audience the opportunity to walk behind the yellow crime-scene tape and observe the police officers collect evidence; viewers become implicit in murders as they are being committed—we look on with pleasure and yet do nothing.
In this essay I have analysed a sample of the criticism surrounding the television program Hannibal. These criticisms exist in the public space of online newspapers and entertainment websites and are targeted to a broader, non-academic audience. The online environment provides deeper interaction between reader and critique than traditional media forms with the added benefits of embedded videos and comments sections. In their role as part of the news process, journalists authorise themselves to critique programs on our behalf and then advise the suitability of such programs, however, this process is extremely subjective and greatly dependent upon personal taste. The genre of television crime drama is a popular one and programs must distinguish themselves in some way in order to stand out from the herd. The series Hannibal has done this by merging the horrific experience of the crime scene with the aesthetic experience of an art object. The result of which is shocking and beautiful. In their reviews, television critics navigate their readers, and prospective audiences, through the complex landscape of the program by advising them ahead of time what they can expect to encounter while viewing Hannibal. The program’s haunting images and morally ambiguous characters, forces us to revaluate our own morals and question the difference between art objects and non-art objects and the way we experience them. But our fascination with crime and crime dramas continues and new programs will feel the desire to compete with their predecessors and be compelled to shock and titillate their audiences. Thankfully though, the television critic will be there to dip their toes in the uncharted water and report back when it is safe to do so.
List of Works Cited
Abbott, Stacey. “SERIAL KILLERS: MASTERS OF TELEVISUAL MISE-EN-SCÈNE.” Critical Studies in Television Online. University of Hertfordshire, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Alexander, Jesse, and Bryan Fuller. “Sorbet.” Hannibal. Dir. James Foley. NBC. 9 May 2013. Television.
Barney, Chuck. “Review: ‘Hannibal’ Revisits One of the Screen’s Most Evil Villains.” San Jose Mercury News. San Jose Mercury News, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.
Blundell, Graeme. “Gruesome and Grisly Stuff Will Have You Hooked before You Know It.” The Australian. News Corp Australia, 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Cavell, Stanley. “The Fact of Television.” Daedalus Fall 111.4 (1982): 75-96. JSTOR. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Dyer, Richard. “KILL AND KILL AGAIN.” Sight and Sound 09 1997: 14,17,3. ProQuest. Web. 23 Sep. 2014 .
Ericson, Richard Victor., Patricia M. Baranek, and Janet B. L. Chan. Representing Order: Crime, Law, and Justice in the News Media. Milton Keynes: Open UP, 1991. Print.
Fuller, Bryan. “Apéritif.” Hannibal. Dir. David Slade. NBC. 4 Apr. 2013. Television.
Goldman, Eric. “Hannibal: How Bryan Fuller Approached the Iconic Character”. IGN. IGN Entertainment, Inc, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.
Gray, Jim D. “Amuse-Bouche.” Hannibal. Dir. Michael Rymer. NBC. 11 Apr. 2013. Television.
O’Neill, Phelim. “Hannibal – Box Set Review.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 11 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2014.
Paskin, Willa. “NBC’s “Hannibal” and Getting Full on TV Violence.” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.
Paskin, Willa. “Why Are TV Serial Killers so Sexy?” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 29 June 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Ryan, Maureen. “‘Hannibal’ Premiere: This Serial Killer Drama Is To Die For.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.
Saito, Yuriko. Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford University Press, 2007-12-01. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2008-01-01. Date Accessed 22 Aug. 2014.
Sepinwall, Alan. “Review: NBC’s ‘Hannibal’ a Riveting ‘Silence of the Lambs’ Prequel.” HitFix. HitFix Inc., 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Stuever, Hank. “‘Hannibal’: Slow Cooked, and Too Dry.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Taylor, A. 2014. A Cannibal’s Sermon: Hannibal Lecter, Sympathetic Villainy and Moral Revaluation. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image. 4.
Van Der Werff, Todd. “Bryan Fuller Walks Us through Hannibal’s Debut Season (part 4 of 4).” AV Club. Onion Inc., 26 July 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.
Zoller Seitz, Matthew. “Seitz: Though We’ve Seen This Story Before, Hannibal Is the Most Beautiful Series on Network TV.” Vulture. New York Media LLC, 5 Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.