'Hannibal' after Boston: What happens when TV networks try to be 'sensitive' to tragic events

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Image Credit: Brooke Palmer/NBC

Tonight’s episode of Hannibal dramatizes a timely theme: Our response – and responsibility – to human suffering, natural or unnatural. Caution: SPOILERS ahead. “Coquilles” introduces us to two people who’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They choose to cope with their illness in different ways, neither way healthy. One character keeps it a secret from her husband because she’s doesn’t want to burden him, creating more dissonance in an already strained marriage. Another character, made monstrous by his disease (and perhaps other manipulative influences), forces his burden onto others in a bizarre, brutal way, with a convoluted justification that perhaps only Dexter – or a terrorist — might find understandable.

While not the equal of the previous three outings, Hannibal’s fourth episode continues the show’s strong start out of the gate. But “Coquilles” wasn’t supposed to be Hannibal’s fourth hour. Last Friday, amid the too real ordeal of the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath, Variety broke the news that Hannibal’s executive producer Bryan Fuller – in consultation with NBC – had pulled the regularly scheduled episode (entitled “Ceuf”) citing the “cultural climate” and a range of recent incidents, in particular the Sandy Hook school shootings.* The episode had a rogue played by Molly Shannon brainwashing kids into killers – a premise that calls to mind Fox’s The Following. To keep fans current with character development, NBC has posted portions of the episode – a subplot about Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and his relationship with Abigail Hobbs – on its websites. (Note: NBC provided the press with five episodes of Hannibal back in March for review/preview. “Coquilles” was among them. The pulled episode was not.)

“I didn’t want to have anyone come to the show and have a negative experience,” Fuller told Variety. “Whenever you [write] a story and look at the sensational aspects of storytelling, you think, ‘This is interesting metaphorically, and this is interesting as social commentary.’ With this episode, it wasn’t about the graphic imagery or violence. It was the associations that came with the subject matter that I felt would inhibit the enjoyment of the overall episode. … It was my own sensitivity.” And so we get the meditation on suffering that is “Coquilles” one week sooner, out of concern for our state of mind, because the creator of a show of fictional horror didn’t want to further burden a culture wounded by a rash of real world monsters… and most likely, didn’t want to be burdened himself by a barrage of Tweets, emails, phone calls and more from outraged viewers complaining – reasonably or otherwise — about an episode that was never intended to be as loaded as it was. Allegedly. Like we said: Haven’t seen it. (Methinks the Hannibal season 1 DVD set just gained a marketable new bonus feature.)

News of NBC’s choice to nix “Ceuf” followed moves by others networks to adjustments their programming in response to unfolding events in Boston.* ABC rescheduled an episode of Castle that dealt with bombs for later in the season. Fox removed from circulation an old episode of Family Guy that contained separate bits about the Boston marathon and a terrorist group blowing up a bridge. The network also swapped out a repeat of New Girl about a young man suspected of being a mass murderer and included a joke about an ominous black bag. Such responses to tragedy that seizes our attention are common practice in the TV industry. The practice, however self-serving, is commendable and appropriate — especially if all we really want from television is a leisure time diversion. Which, in my opinion, is a perfectly acceptable thing to want. Kudos to NBC and company for wanting to spare those who might be uniquely or generally troubled by stories that echo, perhaps only vaguely, the terrible thing they’d like to forget for a half hour or two.

But the example of Hannibal is worth further reflection because it reveals some interesting things about this business of being “sensitive,” or rather, not being “insensitive.” The move made me reasonably curious… and piqued my interest in a way that makes me ashamed. Just how relevant to the times was the pulled episode? How much more lurid could Hannibal be? Now I must know. Let me see! That line of thinking is certainly flattering to a show like Hannibal, which also got TV pundits talking last week by losing nearly 20% of its audience from week two in the overnight ratings. Perhaps this new rep for being alarmingly on-the-nose with the times will imbue the show with must-watch urgency. (The law of public relations according to Mad Men: If you don’t like what’s being said about you, change the conversation.) So we could be cynical and suspicious, too. Why announce the move? And why not just bench Hannibal altogether for a week? Couldn’t we all use a little breather from dreadful drama about man’s inhumanity toward man? And while we’re going down this wormhole: What’s the expiration date on “sensitivity”? When is it okay to go back to being “insensitive”? The more you noodle this over, the more meaningless this seemingly thoughtful gesture becomes.

Here’s a different way NBC could have handled the situation: It could have let us decide for ourselves whether or not to opt out. Hannibal could have started the episode with some prefatory text or a message from the actors and producers spelling out the story’s potential for offense and assuring viewers that no offense was meant. Implicit in such diplomacy: You are responsible for what you put in your head. You have an obligation to yourself (and, to a lesser degree, the story and the storytellers) to actively think through what you see on screen and your experience. Click away if you don’t think you can deal.

Personally, I don’t think Hannibal should even be in the “sensitivity” business. Where’s the line with a show like this? It’s right and proper to try to find it, but also ultimately self-defeating. The truth is there’s never going to be a week when Hannibal isn’t potentially insensitive to someone — beginning with anyone who has been victimized by violent crime and anyone who has been touched by mass murder or the (relatively rare) phenomenon of a serial killer. (Can you imagine if the TV industry took those sensibilities into account every week? Wither Bates Motel, The Following, Dexter, The Mentalist, CSI, Criminal Minds, and so many more?)

In fact, I could see how tonight’s episode of Hannibal might make at least two more large communities of pop culture consumers rather uncomfortable. “Coquilles” gives us a psychopath with a profoundly perverse relationship with religion, and puts people of faith in the position of wondering if the character represents some kind of critical commentary about them or angry slap at them. And then there’s the depiction of terminal illness. [SPOILER ALERT!] Said psycho – who turns his victims into angels by sculpting their back flesh into wings – suffers from a Grade Four brain tumor, an incurable Glioblastoma Multiforme. The scene in which this is revealed – the investigators analyze the killer’s vomit and detect specific cancer-fighting drugs – hit me like a blow to the stomach: As it happens, my wife, who also has a GBM in her head and is fighting for her life at the moment, takes those drugs, too.

So much for trying to win by being “sensitive.”

But here’s the thing. I wasn’t offended by “Coquilles.” I’m religious (Christian), but I also understand that I live in a world filled with people who are not, and more, with people who have serious issues with religion. When I encounter stories that are glib and cynical about a faith I take as true and meaningful, I don’t take it personally; I consider the possibility that the story might actually be quite personal for the person who wrote it, and leave it there. The unexpected encounter with cancer certainly took me aback. My response was to pause, process my experience, and decide whether to continue watching. Did I find the story’s treatment of the disease to be insensitive? No: I found it to be ludicrous. (So did my wife.) But also: Irrelevant. Because of all the things I want Hannibal to be, “medically accurate” ranks low on the list, and “sensitive” ranks even lower. This is a show about evil and cultural depictions of evil and the influence and effect on our imaginations, our emotional lives, and our relationships with others and with the world. This is also a show that entertains by being ridiculously wrong. The best possible version of Hannibal is a show that can be as provocative, outrageous, and resonant (emotionally and with the times) as possible. I expect Hannibal to “cross the line” (wherever it is; if it even exists) into tastelessness every now and then, if not all the time. It is a show about a cannibal, after all.

Bottom line: As much as I appreciate the gesture of “being sensitive,” I’d rather be the judge of what is and isn’t “insensitive.” At the same time, we owe storytellers – especially those who tell stories like Hannibal – the benefit of not always doubting their intentions, and more, the thoughtful labor of actively engaging their work. We just might find something rewarding. Interestingly enough, “Coquilles” speaks meaningfully to this kind of cultural engagement, via the examples of its two heroes. There’s Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), his imagination overwhelmed by evil, wanting to shut down, tune out, quit. And there’s Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who tackles the problem of evil more boldly. In one of the best scenes you’ll see on TV this week, Graham’s boss has an staggering epiphany about his own life while listening to someone else’s story of suffering. He recovers, reflects, and then applies what he learned to a troubled situation in a loving, healing way. I found something inspiring about this: A smart, thoughtful individual, who could interface with sensitive material and be affected by it without being overwhelmed by it, who could see something of himself in it and make something meaningful out of it. Jack Crawford is the guy I want to be when I engage stories about the worst in human beings, fictional or otherwise. His story was a story I was grateful to hear this week. And yes, it wouldn’t have happened if Bryan Fuller and NBC weren’t so gosh darned “sensitive.” A winning move, after all? You be the judge. As it should be.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

*According to an NBC spokesperson, Bryan Fuller and the network chose to pull “Ceuf” from the schedule before the Boston bombings occurred on April 15, although the move wasn’t publicly revealed until April 19. This essay was edited after posting to reflect that perspective.

Read more:
Gillian Anderson on ‘Hannibal’ — first look photo
Review: Mads Mikkelsen mesmerizes in ‘Hannibal’
‘Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen: Lecter is the devil… ‘but I kind of like him’

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