I’m now finished binge-watching the two extant seasons of Hannibal, and I’m astounded. For one thing it’s very good, very dark TV.1 But I’ve seen good, dark TV before. It’s become widely accepted that we’re in a golden age of television drama ushered in by the original programming on HBO and other cable channels beginning about a decade and a half ago. Starting with shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, through Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, TV narrative is darker and more complex than it’s ever been before. But the unifying element of all of these gilded programs has been that they are on subscription services, whether traditional ones like HBO and Showtime, or extended cable channels like AMC, or even streaming services like Netflix (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black). Subscription channels have been getting all the attention, all the acclaim, while network television contented itself with sitcoms and reality shows.
No longer. Hannibal is clearly one of the new crop of dramas: complex, visually striking, and as dark as any program I’ve ever seen. What’s most astonishing about it, though, is that it’s broadcast on NBC. It’s a network television program that could easily be on HBO. It’s certainly as bloody as anything that’s been shown on a subscription channel. About the only thing that gives away its network roots is the occasional elbow carefully placed to occlude a nipple. But aside from that, it’s every bit as engrossing and disturbing as the cable critical darlings. It’s like an alternate universe version of Dexter that wasn’t an insipid gore cartoon.2 This is the counterpunch; the networks are finally ready to compete on narrative. If The Corner and Oz and The Sopranos represented the start of a new kind of long-form storytelling on television, then Hanibal represents the point at which it became the new normal.