When did television get less bold?

This year marked the cancellation of Hannibal, a not entirely unexpected event given the show’s low ratings, though NBC cannot be accused of not giving the programme its best chance — despite those low ratings, the network kept on trying past the point when some would have given up. It stood out in an era when television is getting more safe, more conservative, when it’s being steered away from dangerous, rocky, scary ground that viewers might find threatening or upsetting. The new world of television isn’t brave, and it’s sad, because television is such a striking and powerful medium, one so full of potential, that when it loses boldness, it loses much more.

Hannibal stood out as a show filled with artful violence. For those who can’t stomach body horror, it was unwatchable, and for those troubled by extreme violence against women, the show was at times deeply troubling. But aesthetically, Hannibal was a work of art, even when it was being brutal and horrific. It depicted a world of harsh elegance, interrupted with gore. The settings and costumes were stunning, every piece of the puzzle put together absolutely meticulously to build a world. The characterisation and writing were stellar, even if the world of the show became more baroque and sometimes difficult to follow over time.

And the violence, oh, the violence. The violence was beautiful, in a strange, eerie, upsetting way, and it was meant to be, and that was part of the point, that viewers would absorb the violence and find it beautiful and be repulsed by that reaction — we are supposed to find Hannibal a monster, and yet we’re struck by the sheer elegance of the horrific things he does. Hannibal is a beautiful monster, a complicated antihero in an era when flawed antiheroes are often built and characterised very simplistically. He is evil, yet there is something else to him too.

That was a lot to take on for a broadcast network. Broadcast television usually doesn’t show such extreme violence, or push the limits of sexuality like Hannibal did. Broadcast television doesn’t usually go for slow, painstakingly unfolding stories, preferring episodic formats and digestible episodes. It doesn’t usually go for challenging, complex works that force readers to look complexity in the face, as Hannibal did. They tend to hide behind television as a simplistic and superficial format, creating the very sort of programming that leads snobs to make nasty comments about television rotting the brain and other such nonsense, as though an art form can be encompassed in a single dismissive comment.

NBC was willing to do something bold and it stood out from a pack of broadcast television that’s fallen from a peak of early 2000s productivity, in which some truly original and challenging programming hit the airwaves, only to quietly drop away. Networks are heavily focused now on what gets ratings, preferentially boosting shows of a format they know will do well, like a parade of reality shows, and police procedurals, and romantic comedies. They shy away from programming that may not perform, often not even giving it much of a chance — they stick it in a Friday night death slot, or at an awkward time, effectively ensuring that a show will never really have a chance to take off, despite the best efforts of the creators.

Thus we have programmes like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was about much, much more than simple action and science fiction, but about complicated plot development and character relationships and settings. The show aired for just two seasons and it had a loyal, but regrettably small, following. Maybe that’s in part because viewers prefer pablum, but I believe that does a disservice to television fans, because networks play a role in what flies and what doesn’t, and it doesn’t escape notice that certain shows get primo slots and advertising, and others do not, and the same is true of certain producers; Joss Whedon to Mindy Kaling, for example.

Take Wonderfalls, which was strange and mysterious and experimental and quirky, and survived for just one season. The programme pushed the boundaries of television in different ways, challenging viewers with sheer quixotic aesthetics, and it was striking for the same gorgeous and carefully considered aesthetics as Hannibal — not surprising, since Fuller was on both shows — but also for the fact that it pushed the boundaries of what television could be. It took note of what television is supposed to be and dumped those standards in the skip to focus on creating something new and dynamic and interesting, and I can’t imagine such a show going on the air now.

There’s no room for it amidst BBC remakes and procedurals and people cooking things and singing and dancing and playing out false romances for the camera. Even producers like Fuller, who are trying to push television boundaries and have the clout to get back on air, are finding themselves more strictured, and that’s something that isn’t likely to change, because the broadcast networks are losing their courage, and it makes me sad.

We can look to the pointless, frustrating violence of Game of Thrones and talk about the show as a success, but we can’t address the beauty that is Hannibal and ask why the show was dropped — the comparison is not entirely fair given differing funding models for cable and broadcast, different standards when it comes to good ratings, but it is a valid one to be having. Hannibal was a streak of boldness on a prosaic palette, and it reflects a shrinking opportunity for creativity in television that I hope we can push back on before it’s too late, and not just on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, where most of the boundary-breaking content is living these days.

Image: Blank State, Orin Zebest, Flickr