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Hannibal: How TV's most gorgeous, pretentious drama has managed to survive

How does a show this dense, strange, and low-rated air on any network — let alone NBC?

There was no reason to expect anything special when Hannibal premiered on NBC in April of 2013. A TV series based on a franchise that hadn't spawned anything decent since 1990, the only intriguing thing about Hannibal was its pedigree: creator Bryan Fuller, who earned critical acclaim (if not ratings success) for shows like Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, and stars Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, two talented and intriguing actors who had popped up in blockbusters but never quite broken through in the United States.

Then Hannibal premiered, and everything was exactly the opposite of what you'd have expected it to be. Hannibal wasn't a shameless cash grab designed to squeeze a little more money out of an established name; it was a gutsy, thrillingly innovative reinvigoration of a franchise that had long grown stale. And despite the ongoing popularity of the Hannibal Lecter character — and an unexpected deluge of critical support that has only grown in the years since — U.S. audiences turned up their noses at Hannibal, resulting in ratings that have never risen above anemic.

In interviews, Bryan Fuller is nothing if not frank about this problem: "It is a niche show, and it's amazing that NBC has been as loyal to the show as they have been — because they certainly don’t have any financial incentive to be." And yet, over the course of its first two seasons, the show has doubled down on everything that makes it a hard sell, abandoning an early, more accessible "case-of-the-week" format in favor of a densely serialized, often dreamlike narrative that Fuller compares to "early '80s pretentious art films."

In short, Hannibal shouldn't exist. It's a perennially low-rated and supremely weird series on a network that could use a few more hits. It is way, way more violent than anything else on network television (and arguably on cable). The show wears its artsiness on its sleeve; take, for example, how an episode in its second season was titled after an element of Japanese cuisine. (Yes, that sounds like a small thing — but if you're not a chef or a hardcore foodie, try remembering the difference between "Su-zakana" or "Shiizakana.") And despite unflagging critical support, Fuller's shows have literally always been canceled after two seasons. Hannibal just premiered its third.

Hannibal's survival basically comes down to a quirk of TV financing, which allows NBC to air it "for a fraction of what dramas with similar production values cost," as Deadline writes. The show's popularity on streaming — where it's available for no extra charge for Amazon Prime subscribers — is presumably fairly high; when there were rumblings that NBC would dump the show, Amazon presented itself as a potential new first-run home. And the show's small but intensely loyal group of "Fannibals" carries a certain amount of weight; at a time when networks are desperate for anything that will inspire loyalty, a tiny but passionate bank of viewers is better than nothing at all.

But however you want to justify Hannibal's absurdly unlikely existence, it's sort of thrilling to see a show that's this esoteric daring its viewers to follow it even deeper into the rabbit hole. The season two finale ended with a brutal, bloody cliffhanger that left the fates of pretty much every supporting character up in the air. So what does season three do? Open with an episode that focuses exclusively on Hannibal, perversely stretching the question of who lived and who died for another week. Thomas Harris' novels Hannibal Rising and Hannibal — chronologically, the beginning and the ending of the narrative — are by far the series' weakest. Hannibal season three mashes up elements of both, turning the franchise's dumbest and goofiest moments into a weird, potent cocktail of its own.

There's a part of me that's afraid season three will be the point at which Hannibal eats itself. The first three episodes are as gorgeous as ever, but they're also molasses-slow, luxuriating in the pleasures of the psychological while letting the plot inch forward. The dialogue is sometimes so dense with metaphor and subtext that it hardly makes sense (and Mads Mikkelsen's purring, occasionally impenetrable accent sometimes gets in the way). At three seasons, Hannibal creaks under the weight of its own mythology, doubling back on itself over and over again until the timeline feels like a Russian nesting doll. What will Hannibal look like if it survives to season five or six?

But even at its weakest moments, Hannibal is something truly special, a series that slipped through the cracks with good timing, coincidences, and a few lucky breaks. When you fall in love with a show this weird, you get used to the very real possibility that it'll be yanked away at any time — but as long as we have Hannibal, it's worth savoring.

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