Hannibal and the rise of arthouse style television
Nearly every article on TV begins and ends with, “It’s a great time for television right now.”
That’s not untrue, but it’s not groundbreaking news, either. In the ‘70s, the majority of shows airing either revolved around a detective, a police squad, a family, or a hospital. In fact, in 1976, all of the nominees for Best Drama at the Emmys were detective shows. It was rare that a network would bite off a piece of unique programming, letting it sit for a while, before eventually spitting it onto the ground.
Today, however, networks, premium cable channels, and streaming services are venturing into a new battleground for television: arthouse cinema style programming. NBC’s Hannibal and Cinemax’s The Knick are just two examples of nouveau visual storytelling that could only flourish at this moment in time.
Defined by the American Heritage as, “intended to be a serious artistic work, often experimental and not designed for mass appeal,” arthouse cinema places an emphasis on aesthetic reasoning instead of designed with profit in mind.
Hannibal is a perfect example of this mentality. Although Hannibal Lecter is a notorious character, the show itself drifted away from the Silence of the Lambs infamy and focused on the serialized sultry shadows of psychological profiling and mise-en-scene panel-to-panel storytelling.
The content was grotesque, alarming, and innately disturbing, but it was difficult to find even one marred shot. The elegant strokes of lighting, the at times anachronistic costuming, and the juxtaposition of blood tinged violence to sterile up keepings all played into the captivatingly deranged world.
The show boasted high praise from critics and fans alike, but unfortunately wasn’t enough to keep it going (NBC announced the show would be cancelled on June 22 after a three season run). This type of whimsical storytelling isn’t new to Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller; just throw on a few episodes of his short lived series Pushing Daisies to see, but it’s still a new form of storytelling once native to film that’s making its way to living room sets.
The Knick is another example of this avant-garde stylistic prose succeeding, Helmed by Hollywood heavyweight Steven Sodenbergh, The Knick was one of the first shows that proved a consistent directorial take was just as vital to the medium as the writing itself. Just take a look at Cary Fukunaga’s vital importance on the success of True Detective’s debut season.
The Knick developed an extraordinary voice, unlike any other series, and through its dedication to incongruous props and sets, proved that a show, designed with very little interest of targeting a large audience, could succeed regardless of expectation.
These shows may continue to elicit high critical praise, but unfortunately, they’re still not as popular as run-of-the-mill detective or medical dramas. For that reason, they’re still practically an endangered species.
Still, people have begun to enthusiastically show they want more from their television experience and as more and more creators sign on to make unique content that places the importance of art over the importance of television, TV’s landscape will begin to drastically change.
These few shows are only the beginning to a long line of potentially stunning successors.