Hannibal: What Tumblr ‘fannibals’ mean for the NBC Series

[The following is an essay written for my TV Analysis class]

            NBC’s Hannibal’s first episode, Aperitif aired on April 4th, 2013 to 4.36 million viewers. The show is based on the acclaimed crime, horror, and drama novels by Thomas Harris. The NBC series stands as a reboot for the cinematic Hannibal franchise, which became popular after the success of the 1991 cinematic adaption of Silence of the Lambs in which Anthony Hopkins famously portrayed the character of Hannibal Lecter, although the first Hannibal film was actually the 1986 film Man Hunter, an adaption of Harris’ Red Dragon. While the first three episodes enjoyed rating of around 4 to 3 million, the rest of the season’s rating hung around the low 2 million mark. Ratings this low combined with the show’s unusual subject matter and brutality almost guaranteed the show would be not be renewed for a second season. However, the show was renewed due to a strong fan reaction on the Internet, specifically from fans on the blog site Tumblr. While the show may not be attracting a large audience, it has an incredibly loyal and outspoken fan base. This is partially why I chose to do this show for this essay. I’ve been watching the show since day one, and there is something about it, the atmosphere, the cinematography, the dialogue, but most importantly the chemistry between Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. Everything comes together so perfectly it was apparent from the first episode that Hannibal is show that will develop a loyal following of fans who will fight for its survival. What makes Hannibal unique is that it is a show that should exist on a premium cable network such as HBO or Showtime, however it exists and survives on NBC. Secondly, the show has gathered a large following on Tumblr, a site that is primarily used by women. Many of the ‘fannibals’ are young women, while the target audience of Hannibal is 18 to 35 year old males. All of this creates an interesting show with an even more interesting off screen life. Hannibal shows just what a unique creative form that television can be, with its overarching planned story arch, complex narrative, unique, loyal fan base, and its ability to survive low rating via a cult success based around an internet fan base also showcases a unique new trend in the industry.

Aperitif begins with Will Graham investigating a murder scene where the killer has shot and killed a family and dismantled the security system using a recording of the woman’s voice. Will then begins breaking down the scene, exactly how it happened, in his mind. As he does this we are shown a recreation of the murder, but in this recreation it is our hero, Will Graham, that is shown killing the family. As the episode explains, Will has an empathy disorder, which allows him to be able to think like anyone, even those who commit horrible crimes. In this series, Will fulfills the role of the protagonist burdened with an ability that is both a blessing, as it enables him to be one of the greatest profilers the FBI has, and a curse in that it takes a lot out of him. The series uses this first episode to build not just the rest of the season, but also the rest of the series. Bryan Fuller is the creative force behind Hannibal and has said that he has planned the series out over seven seasons, with season four being Red Dragon, five being Silence of the Lambs, six being Hannibal, and seven being an original story that will finish the series. In a true showcase of the show’s long-term storytelling, the murder the series opened with goes unsolved, and has yet to be brought up again except in passing conversation. However, in an interview Bryan Fuller revealed the identity of person responsible of the first murder we see Will working to be none other than the Red Dragon, the titular killer from Red Dragon, which is set to take place during the shows fourth season.  This kind of planned story arch makes the show more interesting and gives the story a feeling of being more tightly woven than other dramas.

The show’s first season finale Savoureux is an excellent example of the show’s narrative complexity. In this episode we have three main stories going on, Will’s escape and attempt to clear his name, Dr. Lecter’s dealings with Abigail, and the third and final plot, FBI’s struggle to find Will, taking a backseat to the other two. All three of these plot lines collide in the finale, where Will finally sees Hannibal for the monster he is, but can not get out of the web he has entrapped him in. Will goes to jail, framed for multiple brutal murders all committed by Hannibal. This season and the current season both showcase an interesting dynamic not seen in many shows; it has the audience split on whom to root for. Both Will and Hannibal are likable, interesting characters that no one wants to see taken out of the story any time soon. However, someone must win and someone must lose. Towards the end of last season viewers would tweet about the show using the hashtag “#SomebodyPleaseHelpWillGraham” to show their support for Will. While no hashtag existed that cheered Hannibal on, it was clear that everyone loved watching Hannibal manipulate people so expertly.  Which creates an odd rift in fans watching the show. While watching you want good things to happen to Will for a change, but at the same time you want to see Hannibal win as well, just because he’s so cool and interesting. The show also does well in being a mix of genres. It is part procedural cop (or in this case F.B.I.) drama, part psychological thriller, and a brutal horror. “Genre hybridity has gone beyond a device to aggregate different target groups to build an audience…to be used creatively, with one genre consciously played against another (Nelson 47). This allows the show to be constantly fresh, never getting into a rut where the audience knows what is coming.  This is most effective when Hannibal’s calm moments such as his psychiatric or cooking scenes are juxtaposed with the aftermath of his murderous habits.  These scenes are what really drive fans wild, as they showcase the character’s true self so well without actually showing it as Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter did.

This series has acquired an unusual fanbase that call themselves ‘fannibals’ in something that is the polar opposite of the ‘bronies’ of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This show is dark, cold, brutal, and made for a male horror fan audience, yet it attracts young females on Tumblr. My Little Pony is a cute, bubbly cartoon show about the magical adventures of friendship, made for young girls, yet attracts an audience of eighteen to fifty year old men. While both these fan bases might seem the polar opposite of each other, they have one thing in common; they both exist almost exclusively on the Internet. For My Little Pony it was the imageboard 4chan, and for Hannibal it is Tumblr. This makes sense, as 4chan is overwhelmingly a male forum, and while Tumblr’s makeup is not as overwhelmingly one sided, it is a predominantly female website. Why would females like this show?

When it comes down to it Hannibal and Will Graham’s relationship is the focus of this show. There are weekly brutal murders and other such plots going on such as the diagnosis of Jack Crawford’s wife with cancer, but where the meat of the story really comes in is from the ever-evolving relationship between Will and Hannibal. Shows with gay plot lines, such as Glee or Will and Grace don’t resonate with gay men as much as well or at all while they do with women. This could very well explain why women are drawn to Hannibal. As Taylor Miller says in “Performing Glee: Gay Resistance to Gay Representations and a New Slumpy Class” “…these straight women watch Glee to have their finger on the pulse of gay culture. They regard their own struggles with social norms, and I suspect with internal resistance to the postfeminist landscape (in which they are stripped of agency), as running parallel with Kurt’s and the gay communities’, and as such, they watch Glee in a place of greater political spirit than many of their gay peers.” The relationship between Will and Hannibal has obvious homoerotic overtones, despite Bryan Fuller’s insistence that Will and Hannibal’s relationship is strictly a ‘bromance.” As he said in an interview with Jim Halterman for Xfinity’s TV Blog, “I think Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham are having a heterosexual romance. They are very much have love for each other, and are behaving in ways that would suggest that there’s a level of intimacy that a certain amount of passion is required for.” This can be seen in Su-zakana, the eighth episode of season two, which follows the case of a dead woman found stuffed inside a horse’s womb. The killer and his friend Peter in this episode are representative of Hannibal and Will’s relationship, with one taking advantage of and manipulating the other. It is a sad tale, that infuriates Will to the point that he attempts to kill the murder for hurting Peter how Lecter has hurt him. Hannibal stops him, and he takes a moment to marvel in Will’s ability to want to hurt this man on his own, without his direct influence. Here, Hannibal is happy that Will is becoming more like him. This is a moment that is clearly fan service to all the hannigram shippers. The way that Dr. Lecter takes Will’s head in his hands and speaks so softly to him and seems so proud shouts fan service. Bryan Fuller, the show runner, knows he owes the continued survival of the show to the fans and you can tell that he wants to make them happy with scenes like these. This season has had more fan service than the previous, such as in episode five, Mukozike, where Hannibal is attacked while swimming in a pool, and he is hanged while wearing only small, tight swim trunks. This season has also begun featuring sex scenes, albeit they are highly stylized Hannibal versions of sex scenes, while the previous season had none. Some bloggers have suggested the homoerotic relationship between Will and Hannibal could stem from the fact that the showrunner Bryan Fuller is gay. However, in the first season the homoerotic nature of Will and Hannibal’s relationship was more downplayed, with their interactions being more of an intimate teacher student relationship. As season two progresses so does the homoerotic tone between Will and Hannibal, however in this season it seems more out, more like fanservice.

Last season Hannibal averaged 2 million viewers per episode. This is low enough for the show to be cancelled, however the show was renewed because of two factors, strong critical support of the show, and intense fan following on the Internet. While it is rare for a show to survive with low ratings, it has happened before. As O’Donnel says in “Demystifying the Business of Television” “it is a rare phenomenon, viewer reaction may sometimes “save” a television program. The first time this happened was in 1968…when NBC renewed Star Trek” (27). It has since happened more and more, with fans saving shows such as Family Guy, Futurama, and Sleepy Hollow despite low ratings. This has taken many different forms. Fans saved Star Trek back in 1968 with a letter writing campaign. DVD sale brought back Family Guy, and online fan interest got Futurama green lit for four made for DVD movie, which sold so well they brought the show back on Comedy Central. In the case of Hannibal, it was an online campaign. It was receiving so much buzz on sites like Tumblr and Reddit, as week as several petitions started by fans online, that despite low ratings other networks were already taking interest in the show in case NBC did not renew it. This makes the idea of NBC canceling the show unlikely, as it would be quickly scooped up to another network, and NBC definitely does not want that. While the show may not be bringing in many viewers, which in the classical system is everything since television really exists as a way to deliver viewers to ads for advertisers, it brings the network critical acclaim. This makes Hannibal a unique case of a show surviving despite the network having every reason to cancel it.

Hannibal is a very unique series. It’s tone, atmosphere, characters, dialogue, brutal murder tableaus, and cinematic feel to the show make it something that would appear more at home on HBO than sharing airtime on the same network as Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Law and Order. The show is known for its intelligent, dark plots and darkly unique visual style. In the end the answer to the question ‘what do fannibals mean for Hannibal’ is a simple one; they mean survival. They are the reason this show still exists, and as long as Bryan Fuller can keep them seduced by the show, the longer we can expect to see Hannibal serving up chaos, and people, on our televisions. Surviving low ratings with a large Internet following and critical acclaim, NBC’s Hannibal is a force to be reckoned with in primetime television.

Works Cited

Halterman, Jim. “TV Blog.” Bryan Fuller On The Queerness of ‘Hannibal’ And Modern Day

            Television. Xfinity, 27f Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Miller, Taylor C. “Performing Glee: Gay Resistance to Gay Representations and a New Slumpy

            Class Taylor Cole Miller / FLOW Senior Editor | Flow.” Flow RSS. Flow TV, 6 July

            2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

Moore, Trent. “Bryan Fuller Reveals His Epic 7-season Plan for Hannibal.” Blastr. N.p., 19 June

            2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Nelson, Robin. “Quality TV Drama.” (n.d.): n. pag. Abstract. (n.d.): 39-51. Print.

            O’Donnell. “Demystifying the Business of Television.” (n.d.): 21-48. Abstract. (n.d.): n.   pag. Print.

A PDF version of this essay is available Here.

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