Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal – In Context of His Other Shows About Life & Death

Bryan Fuller has a new show, Hannibal, on NBC. At first – getting a feel for the show via the promos, then seeing his name – it struck me as odd. The more I think about it, it’s a logical progression of his work, when it has to fit within the fairly narrow framework of network TV in the age of procedurals, ShowTime, and HBO. I haven’t seen Hannibal yet, but that’s about to change, after I muse a little about why it just might work.

That font always slays me.

Fuller started with Dead Like Me, which is the least developed of his works I’m familiar with (all save Mockingbird Lane), but also hard to judge him by this show since he left early in the first season over ‘creative differences.’ The best thing about Dead Like Me is its insistence on giving all its characters difficult, dislikable, and sometimes truly awful aspects. You’re uncomfortable when Joy and Clancy fight or use their surviving daughter Reggie as a weapon. You are a bit queasy yet more understanding than you think you should be at Reggie’s methods of dealing with her loss. Mason’s justifications for ripping off items of just-dead people makes such perfect sense, but, but . . . it feels icky.

Some of this, though, lends itself to the fact I enjoyed it the first time, but wouldn’t rewatch it. If it had more of Pushing Daisy‘s whimsy or Wonderfall‘s character development, or additional angles in many individual episodes which dragged their feet, perhaps. But the strong female characters, fantastical killing mechanisms, and acerbic wit would show strong in the next two shows Fuller did, the next of which was Wonderfalls.

I'm not sure why they feature the mouth-breather, but he is a good antagonist.

Wonderfalls is my favorite of the bunch. Its fantastical premise is a little more raw than Pushing Daisies and more jarring than Dead Like Me, and they don’t explain up-front WHY the animal statuettes are talking, which is a plus. Not everything is explicable; there’s a general acknowledgement that we’re just muddling through what we don’t understand. The special effects aren’t anything to write home about, but since the whole show is on the verge of the absurd – did we mention the talking animal statuettes and Jaye’s awesome trailer? – they work almost better than perfectly high-budget ones.

I know too few people who have seen this show. Elevator pitch: Jaye starts having conversations which lead her to question even more the meaning of life, destiny, and sanity – the latter mostly because the conversations are with things like keychains and pink lawn flamingoes. Jaye’s best friend is Mahandra, the general voice of reason. Her brother Aaron’s PHd in comparative religions serves to highlight tension between faith and reason and absurdity. Tender, complex, sometimes ridiculous relationships are formed. Watch it.

Speaking of the strong female friendship, Fuller’s works are always open to strong (and rather sarcastic and sometimes aimless) women, which I appreciate. And at least half of them have good taste in partners, though the rest make plenty of . . . interesting choices.

I almost went with one of the many other "Pie-Hole' pictures featuring cherries, but I had to admit this was clever.

The biggest carry-over from Wonderfalls to Pushing Daisies is Lee Pace, who does great work in both. He’s believable as a sweet, silent type who just lets things happen, rolls with the punches, whether those be his sister seeming insanity or his ability to touch dead things back to life. Pushing Daisies has a fun story and two engaging leads, but it’s the visuals that are the stars. The sets and outfits are amazing, and it’s incredibly gory in a hyper stylized way. Essentially, Pushing Daisies takes Dead Like Me‘s ingenious deaths, cranks them to 11, and pours melted Crayola crayons over the top. The show continues with characters making uncomfortable and often unconventional choices, though at least one character could do so in smaller doses and it’d work better, thanks. The flashbacks, set decoration, and special effects are more developed – as they should be when lit as brilliantly as they are – and it’s sad they struggled so hard to stay on the air (partially due to the writer’s strike) that plot development was hindered. When I saw Amélie, I was instantly struck by the similar feel, and come to find out that was very much intentional. Production values for network shows are so rarely comprable to big films, and this still remains a rare treat.

Saturated colors, check. Classical composition, check. *sigh* One black character, check.

Fuller obviously learns a lot from his past shows, and unlike, say, Dick Wolf, his work evolves drastically as it goes. His visuals are always impressive; he walks the cynical-yet-well-intended tightrope well; casting is generally solid, and Hannibal seems to have outdone itself there. In addition, he brings the gore factor – though before cloaked in outrageous costumes and/or blasé cynicism – slightly morphed, to Hannibal’s table. Fuller has quite a recipe for seasoning the macabre with wry humor and probing insight, so here’s hoping this big backing can let the show last more than a dozen episodes without jumping networks, switching actors, losing producers, or getting axed. Otherwise, I’m going to be nine episodes in and ranting at the tv gods. Again.

If you have seen the show(s) and want to weigh in, please do, but please mark if you spoil Hannibal, and I’ll wait to read those parts until after I’ve caught up. 

5 Responses to “Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal – In Context of His Other Shows About Life & Death”
  1. Melanie! I love Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me —in that order! And, I agree, how did Wonderfalls ONLY air 4 episodes before being cancelled???!!! It seems to have a cult following now, though, thanks to releasing all the produced episodes to DVD. I covet my copy. I even live in hope that it will one day be released on blu-ray with goodies.

    And, I’ve seen one episode of Hannibal so far…I have a backlog of stuff right now. I had some of the same initial thoughts that you did—how did the Fuller of Wonderfalls, PD, & DLM find his way to Hannibal? I’m still wondering that. The tone is so different, and it does feel more like all that other procedural stuff than his particular brand of wit, cynicism, and affection. Yes, his visual aesthetic is still on display, but even that is toned down, in my opinion. There is no whimsy. It’s all tense and all dramatic. Of course, I’ve only seen one episode so I shouldn’t based everything on that. But the tone has been set, and it’s quite a departure for Fuller in my opinion. That is not to say that it isn’t interesting or worth checking out. I did enjoy it, and I am still really intrigued to figure out where Fuller is with it. And, we get to see Caroline Dhavernas (Yay! Jaye!) again, so that’s always good. I really miss Diana Scarwid though. I am ready for her to pop back up somewhere in some other Fuller project.

    Thanks for your thoughts on Fuller, and I look forward to reading your more formed opinion of Hannibal as you get into it.

    • Melanie says:

      Fitting one’s abilities to the tone of what is selling long-running shows right now (CSI is on season 14!) is quite the survival skill, and I applaud him that. May it bring him all the money and clout to do many more shows. I thought about a cable future; ShowTime, not HBO, something 12-14 episodes with some dark yet quippy characters, but even that’s not a good fit. I wonder how an alternate method like a web series would suit his work, but then I think that streaming quality is not yet a match for his epic visuals. I don’t know, his past work just doesn’t fit the molds.

      Caroline Dhavernas’s Jaye was my favorite central character, and Wonderfalls had the strongest overall cast of all the shows. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but all this talk is making me want a rewatch.

  2. Bryan Fuller! I always at least try on his shows to see if I like them because, as you say, his visual style is always very unique and his casting is usually pretty good.

    For me, Wonderfalls is the only show of his that I think was fully realized with an entire cast of compelling characters. To me the leads of Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies feel underdeveloped. I found Joy and Reggie’s tenuous relationship far more compelling than George’s new life as a reaper, and I really watched Pushing Daises for Olive and Emerson. (Even though Olive’s story line was rather trite, especially in season one, I thought Kristin Chenoweth brought a lot of depth to that character.) For some reason, I just feel like something is missing from George, Ned, and Chuck — their story lines hold little interest for me.

    I was planning on giving Hannibal a try eventually, but now that I see Caroline Dhavernas is in it I’ll have to move it higher up in the queue.

    • Melanie says:

      I feel like George had a lot of wasted potential, and I think that’s mostly due to the direction the whole show took. Whereas the Happy Time stuff was good so far as it still played on existential angst of typical 20-somethings, her actual grappling with what it meant to be a reaper was pale, and her connection to the other reapers should have been mined more. I liked Rube as a mystery, and felt like if the show had gone on, they would have told us too much about him. Who I really wanted to know more about was Roxy, and Kiffany, too.

      Meanwhile, I preferred Olive in very, very tiny doses; I thought she worked great as a counterpoint to Emerson, and the way Ned never knew how to take her was priceless, but I didn’t care for her otherwise. Ah well, no accounting for taste, and this is why Fuller’s range of characters works, because there’s something for many people.

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