You Can’t Do That On (Network) Television!

Image by Flickr user Peter Tittenberger
Image by Flickr user Peter Tittenberger

After watching last week’s episode of Hannibal that included begin minor spoilers a scene where a character cuts off and eats a piece of his own face end minor spoilers, I was sure I’d seen it all.

All on network TV, that is.

My goodness, how network TV dramas have grown up! Why, it seems like only yesterday they were yay high to a bug’s knee! Over the past couple decades, we’ve seen your NBCs, ABCs, CBSs, and CWs ramp up the “gross out” factor in your crime scene procedurals.  We’ve seen sitcoms walk a fine line between edgy and dirty. We’ve seen sexy, blush-worthy storylines with innuendo piled on thick and hard. But the mature, deft, and macabre atmosphere of Hannibal is something rather new.

On network TV.

The things that make Hannibal great (and, by extension, less fleshy but no less intense shows like Arrow and The Following, as well as potential candidates like the upcoming Gotham) — rich character development, intelligence, action and reaction, wordplay (and foreplay), rawness, and fearlessly presenting truths good and evil — are things that we’ve seen in droves in shows on cable.  Cable/streaming service dramas that delight in the mature easily roll off the tongue – The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Fargo, Justified, DaVinci’s Demons, Boardwalk Empire, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Mad Men, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

Now try to do the same with the stuff you see on the prime time schedule after Wheel of Fortune and Entertainment Tonight. Um. Okay, there’s Hannibal and The Following (not a personal favorite, but I get it); I guess Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. counts now, but it’s more family oriented; Arrow, even if it is still super-hero-y. Uh…I hear that Grimm has really taken off, though I’ve not seen it; oh, people say good things about The Good Wife; ummm….

This isn’t to say that the networks haven’t had their fair share of must-watch dramas, but, fortunately or unfortunately, there’s only so much that can be said and done broadcast-wise according to the FCC between the evening hours of eight and eleven. So it’s nice to see something like Hannibal push those boundaries a little, err…a lot. (Aside: For you “Fannibals,” The A. V. Club has been running a weekly series with Hannibal‘s creator Bryan Fuller on the ins and outs of the show. It’s been fascinating to read just how they’ve manage to “get away with” all that they have so far.)

Treading the lines between disturbing and strange on television isn’t anything new. Plenty of past shows have, in different ways, laid the path on which Hannibal now walks. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I’ve taken to (binge) watching back catalogs of several shows, two of which I’ll briefly bring up here: The X-Files and Numb3rs. Neither of these shows was particularly gruesome (though The X-files had its moments), but they both spoke to this notion of “our audience can and wants to handle to subject matter we’re presenting. Out audience is intelligent.”  They were both able to present their topics in mature fashions, without sarcasm (sometimes) and with, to varying degrees, aplomb (eh…sometimes. Nobody’s perfect).

I’m not saying there are any direct correlations between the actions of Hannibal Lecter, Fox Mulder, and Charlie Eppes, except that none are condescending. Whether you have Lecter talking about his patients or palate, Mulder talking about his close encounters, or Eppes solving a complicated math problem, they are each presented as profound characters, sincere in what they believe and real about what they emit to audiences. It’s this lack of patronizing and sense of inclusion (“I understand this and so can you”), that sets apart great network TV dramas from the mediocre ones (and that elevate the cable ones generally). Sometimes these notions don’t quite reach the proper plateau (though Almost Human could have, probably, if it had only been given the chance!), but humans of today aren’t ones to shy away from the safe and middling (shoot, even I give into Bones and NCIS on occasion).

That doesn’t mean we’re all clamoring for a TV line-up that’s filled with grit (how that would chafe, I imagine), grime, and drugged-up corpses with knives and penchants for the morbid. What it does mean is that our society has matured far beyond the days of Shazam! and Isis and Dallas and Twin Peaks (though…::shivers::). Sure, we’ll still take a little soap with our operas and a little law with our order, but only as long as they believe in us as much as we believe in them. When I want pompous TV, I’ll turn on CNN (and then turn it right back off); when I want intelligent and sincere drama, it’s nice to now know that I can at least start with the networks and work my way from there.

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Like what you’ve just read? Cary posts to Geek Force Network every Friday. You can also find more words that she put together in paragraphs at Recollections of Play and United We Game

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