Saturday, April 27, 2013

How will NBC's unaired "Hannibal" episode affect the show's reputation?

     Hugh Dancy as Will Graham on "Hannibal".
     Photo Credit: NBC

Early last Monday (April 15), Bryan Fuller, the creator of the dark, disturbing, and excellent new series "Hannibal," approached NBC with a request not to air an upcoming episode of the series, which focuses on FBI profiler Will Graham and his experiences with a pre-imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris' series of books and their film adaptations. The episode, entitled "Ceuf," features Molly Shannon playing a disturbed mother (who has lost her own child) kidnapping kids and then brainwashing them into murdering their families.

Most of "Hannibal's" 13 episode order was filmed last year, before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. In light of the tragedy, Fuller was rightfully uncomfortable with the episode's "kids murdering other kids" subject matter and NBC agreed to skip over the episode. The announcement of the episode's removal from the North American market came last Thursday (April 18), and many sources initially reported (wrongly) that the Boston bombings last week were responsible for the shuffling. Most of these reports were later corrected, and NBC prepared to skip to episode five.

Small problem: while "Hannibal" does contain a case of the week (the Molly Shannon side of things), there's an ongoing arc involving the case from the pilot episode and how it has affected the main characters. Particularly, the unaired episode contains a good deal of development in the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Abigail Hobbs, the victim of the pilot's antagonist. When critics were sent episodes to review earlier this month, they were sent episodes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, and in watching the "Previously on Hannibal" segment realized they had missed these developments from episode four. To help eliminate confusion, Fuller "cannibalized" the episode (haha, because you see, Hannibal Lecter...never mind) into six short webisodes, running in total for about 22 minutes. This way, fans could follow along with the arc in future episodes but not have to see whatever disturbing violent images (that were actually probably topped in episode five) from the case of the week.

While the episode has been eliminated from the U.S. and Canadian rotation, the full episode will still air overseas. AXN, a Sony-owned channel that holds the broadcast rights to the show in parts of Asia, aired the uncensored version of "Ceuf" earlier tonight in India and the rest of the continent is expected to see the episode on Tuesday. And because it's 2013, that means it won't be too long before the full version makes its way online.

Confused? You won't be after this week's episode of..."Hannibal!" (Actually, you might still be very confused. I wouldn't blame you.)

Where to begin?

Let's start with NBC's decision to pull the episode. Honestly, I don't really mind that they did it. We're a few months removed from Sandy Hook, so this isn't like SyFy understandably pulling an episode of "Haven" dealing with a school shooting that was scheduled to air the night of December 14. But I understand that Fuller would be concerned that legitimate tragedy might dilute the entertainment value of the episode and not feel all that comfortable with airing it.

Then again, I also feel if Fuller was disturbed by the subject matter, he wouldn't have been comfortable producing the episode at all, whether or not it reflected any all too real devastation. And I certainly don't like that NBC is not making the full episode available to us in any capacity, via Hulu or iTunes or on I like to think of myself as something of an adult, and I, along with many other viewers of what is at its most tame a violent and disturbing show, feel that I can decide for myself what I can and cannot handle. Who is Bryan Fuller to say he knows my sensitivities better than I do?

NBC's refusal to make the episode available on any platform brings up an important question that is asked whenever PBS begins airing a new season of "Downton Abbey" months after it airs in the UK: why are they pretending that it's 1985? As I mentioned, the episode is going to end up online and dedicated, tech-savvy fans are going to illegally download the episode through torrent sites and see the Molly Shannon case of the week anyway. Cutting together the webisodes seems like a lot of hoop-jumping to potentially alienate fans who will either A) not know of the webisodes and be very confused watching the fifth episode, or B) will be self-sufficient enough to seek out the full episode for themselves and be annoyed with NBC for feeling they had to do so.

"Hannibal" debuted at an unfortunate time on the heels of Fox's "The Following," a show that is also about serial killers but is dreadful and reprehensible in the show's empty use of violence. When I ask how skipping over an episode will affect the reputation of "Hannibal," I can see a positive in that it once again demonstrates how carefully and thoughtfully Fuller is using violent subject matter and graphic images on the show ("thoughtful" does not seem to be a word "The Following" creator Kevin Williamson is familiar with), ensuring they are emphasizing story and not just provoking a reaction from the audience. But I'm far more concerned at how confusing the dwindling number of "Hannibal" viewers will hurt the show in the long run, which at this point, might not end up making it past the first course (yeah, I can make cannibal puns too).

UPDATE: Since posting, NBC has made the full version of "Ceuf" available on Hulu and the iTunes Store in the United States. What took them so long?