Consuming Television’s Golden Age with Hannibal Lecter

Rowena Clarke

“This is My Becoming”

When F.B.I. Forensic Profiler, Will Graham, stands before a murder scene in NBC’s Hannibal, his preternatural empathy for the show’s killers animates the tableau before him, restaging their crimes and allowing him access to their motivations. “This is my design,” Graham whispers in early episodes, as he gleans from the swoop of a blood spatter, or the arrangement of severed limbs, a kind of artistic sympathy for the aesthetics of violence. Later, this repeated utterance evolves into “this is my becoming,” as Graham himself is moved to “create” murder. Drawing on terminology from existential philosophy, the show suggests to its viewers that the murders Graham investigates and perpetrates are aesthetic objects, on par with the artistic production of fine artists. These scenes function as a moments of meta-interpretation, in which the viewer is granted privileged access to the usually internal processes by which art is engaged with on a sympathetic, sensual, and, finally, analytic level. Kierkegaard’s position that “artistic production reveals ontological possibility” means that “it is an important context for critiquing the power of art to shape subjectivity” (Jethen, 2014). So, too, can Hannibal’s presentation of the aestheticization of murder be understood as a comment on the ethics of television violence and the viewers it shapes, as well as the alchemy of television’s so called “golden age” in which pulp sensibilities have transmogrified into “quality TV.”


Hyperreal aesthetic: NBC’s TV series Hannibal exemplifies “quality TV” in its stylistic reliance on filmic techniques

[Image by Peter Pham under a CC BY license]

These concerns are connected through Hannibal’s self-aware, hyperreal aesthetic which revels in its own excesses of style and continually titillates, then frustrates, viewer desire for narrative depth by offering instead surface detail, and cryptic dialogue that imitates profundity while actually revealing very little. Hannibal’s aesthetic of excess and imitation trains its viewers to think about questions of quality, originality, and the consumption of violence on television. In doing so, Hannibal offers an attentive audience valuable critical tools with which they can approach other television shows. In a cultural moment being called the new Golden Age of Television, such tools are especially useful as they can help us frame and articulate an interpretive response to shows that have become cultural touchstones, such as Game of Thrones and True Detective, both of which aestheticize violence, especially sexual violence, in a much less self-critical manner.  

Quality Television and Popular Literature

The 1950’s were television’s original golden age: an era in which the rosters of the limited number of US commercial network channels were filled with hour-long dramas, and telecasts of canonical theatre and ballet. As the commercial possibilities of television began to become clearer, and episodic series began to dominate the ratings, TV’s early focus on programming which reflected the forms and content of elite culture was remembered as the peak from which television then descended. The term “golden age of television” thus carries with it implications about popularity, commercialism and their relationship with both the content and formal features of television programming. These implications are also at play in later uses of the term, where, in Robert J. Thompson’s 1996 book Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, it became connected to that other subjective notion: “quality TV.” In 1996, Thompson identified a trend in television programming which he identified as “quality TV” and which was marked, according to him, by its stylistic reliance on film techniques, its use of complex, overlapping plots that suggest novelistic influences, and by its deployment of social and cultural criticism; but just as important as these formal markers was a less clear cut definition: the suggestion that quality TV was understood in terms of what it was not. As Thompson says, it was not “regular TV” (Thompson 12-16). As Jane Feuer has outlined, this notion of defining quality TV in opposition to regular television has been at the core of HBO’s marketing strategy since at least their deployment of the slogan: “It’s not T.V. It’s HBO.” But television’s quality/regular division, and the aesthetic distinctions it implies, are complicated by its peculiar relationship with the forms of literary popular culture. As the title of Thompson’s books suggests, a large portion of the shows that we tend to think of as quality TV draw on popular literary forms such as detective fiction, for their narrative forms, stock characters, and plot lines. Whilst certain sub-genres of crime fiction have long-since entered the literary canon, television continues to perform a kind of alchemy in the adaptation of popular genre novels to big-budget serialized TV shows. Science fiction, fantasy and horror remain niche (if profitable) markets within the publishing world, and the evaluation of such literature in both the popular and scholarly press tends to avoid formal and aesthetic criticism of such texts. However, in adaptation, the niche appeal of books such as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is transformed into a mass cultural event, as the recent news that U.S. President Barack Obama receives advance copies of Game of Thrones episodes attests. And the critical reception of quality TV in the popular press often hinges on analysis of a show’s formal and aesthetic values. For example, in a 2014 article published on the website of the A.V. Club (the satirical newspaper, The Onion’s, non-satirical arts site) the influence of framing and composition on audience perception of character’s social status is explored at length (Kaufman, 2014). Through their transformation into quality television, then, George R. R. Martin’s stories become fodder for aesthetic evaluation of the same type as ‘elite’ cultural objects.     

In the current era of quality TV, there is another marker of difference that allows us to identify such shows as being not like ‘regular’ TV; that difference is the amount and extremity of violence, nudity and sexuality that the shows contain. Broadcast television in the U.S. follows strict regulations from the Federal Communications Commission, which restrict the use of offensive language and the depiction of sexuality and nudity on television, while the networks themselves have standards and practices departments that advise and arbitrate on matters of on-screen violence. Cable channels, seen as the progenitor of our current age of quality television, have no such restrictions, and are free to air material that could never be shown on broadcast channels. This once again, presents us with a paradox about this notion of quality TV, which is at once seen as artistically freer than conventional television, and at the same time, through this connection to the depiction of sex and violence, to the content of pulp fiction, and other ‘low’ culture narrative forms.     

Retro TV

Genre mixing: “quality TV” shows such as Hannibal and Game of Thrones adapt popular literature whilst drawing on cinematic tradition

[Image by Katchooo under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

The notion of quality TV, then, is anchored in our present moment by two central characteristics: the depiction of violence and sexuality not acceptable on regular TV (more common to popular literature) and the aesthetic transmogrification of such violence into something of stylistic and cultural value that receives critical appreciation. We can see an awareness of the centrality of this amalgam to the conception of quality TV in other shows, for example: the title of HBO’s True Detective points to its understanding of the pulp elements that populate it, True Detective being a title borrowed from a true crime and crime fiction pulp magazine that began its run in 1924. However, NBC’s Hannibal, a prequel to and, finally, adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, takes these two characteristics of quality television as its raison d’être, constructing the narrative and form of an entire show around the aesthetic appreciation of murder. Not only that, but Hannibal is shot so as both to involve its audience in that aesthetic evaluation, and to make them aware of the techniques of artistic production that render murder into art.

Genre-mixing, Hyperreality and Hannibal’s Film Form

Thomas Harris’s novels, on which Hannibal is based, tend to be classified for the market as simple thrillers, but they, like the adaptations they have spawned, contain elements of various popular literary sub-genres such as the Gothic mystery and the police procedural. The various visual adaptations have tended to emphasize one element in particular. For instance, Michael Mann’s 1988 Manhunter, an adaptation of Red Dragon, amps up the stylized Gothic horror but does it with a neon sensibility; while Jonathan Demme’s Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs, focuses on the scientific process of forensic investigation. Bryan Fuller’s television semi-adaptation combines both of these generic modes at exaggerated baroque levels, with visual and narrative elements from other popular narrative forms; in particular, the domestic melodrama.     

Underlying the plot arc of all three seasons is a kind of literal family romance, in which Will Graham, the FBI’s contracted criminal profiler, and Hannibal Lecter, who enters the narrative as Will’s psychiatrist, are drawn to each other through their shared experience at the suburban murder site of the Hobbs’ family home, during and after which, they jointly take responsibility for the surviving daughter of the Hobbs family: Abigail. Fans labelled this grouping the “murder family,” and the show’s visual rendering of both Will and Hannibal’s relationship, as well as their relationship with Abigail, is reminiscent of the mid-century domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s film-world was one of heightened emotion, and suppressed desire articulated visually through the use of conspicuous style: strict colour palettes, stylized matte paintings instead of locations shooting etc. In particular, Hannibal’s first season draws on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), borrowing that film’s suburban milieu, saturated colour schemes, and stag symbol as the key iconography of Hannibal and Will’s relationship. Sirk’s films were not originally received as important films; rather they were seen as disposable ‘women’s’ films, but their stature grew as they began to be re-assessed and welcomed into the canon of classical cinema. As John Brody writes in the New Yorker:

[Sirk] perceived melodrama as a classical genre that shifted tragic passions into bourgeois settings, thus highlighting the disproportion of those passions to the intimate banality of the action. There’s an element of opera in his conception of the genre—particularly the domestic operas of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Verdi to Puccini—and his images are the music. (Brody, 2015: n. pag.)

By invoking Sirk’s movie, Hannibal stakes a place for its own narrative that marks it out as a form of social and cultural criticism that is expressed through the exaggerated forms of low-culture suggesting a deep self-awareness on the part of the show about the place of quality TV in the cultural landscape. Not only that, but it supports the queer subtext of the show, in which Hannibal and Will’s pseudo-romance becomes the show’s narrative drive. Additionally, the intertextual relationship with Sirk’s film points us to the unstable nature of our conceptions of high and low culture, bringing into focus the question of television’s place in the pantheon of artistic production.  

Within Hannibal itself, as well as in Harris’s novels, opera and other classical music forms are invoked as a marker of aesthetic sophistication. Hannibal Lecter, whose taste is denoted as especially sophisticated by his preternatural sensory abilities, is portrayed as a patron of the Baltimore opera, where in one scene of the television show he is moved to tears by a performance of an aria from Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt. But, so too are the heightened aesthetics of opera connected to the violence portrayed in the show: Hannibal serves his friends from the opera community an extravagant dinner in which the human victims of his crimes are transformed into a feast whose sensory excess is expressed through its visual presentation, as well as the exaggerated, stylized facial expressions of the diners. Just as Sirk is said to uncover in melodrama a sensibility close to tragic opera, Hannibal suggests that its protagonists achieve something similar through violence; and, through our own enjoyment of the show’s representation of murder, it asks us to engage with the morality of such a transformation.     

The show reminds us again and again of the way that its murderers and investigators view the violence of murder through the lens of art: in episode eight of the show’s first season, the world of classical music once more provides the backdrop as a trombonist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is killed and displayed onstage with his throat opened to be played as if it were a cello. When Graham is called to the scene, he sits in a concert hall seat as if he were a member of the audience who had come here to see the body onstage. To drive home the point, Graham remarks that this is “murder as performance,” (“Fromage”, 2013). In this same scene, Graham responds to a question from his boss Jack Crawford about the effects of seeing such violence over and over again, by saying: “it’s getting easier to look” (“Fromage”, 2013). The narrative arc of Graham’s slowly rising comfort levels with murder thus becomes a metacommentary of sorts on the same process that the show’s television viewers may experience as they become accustomed to such violence.     

All That Heaven Allows

High or low culture? NBC’s Hannibal draws on classical cinema, borrowing the milieu and iconography from Douglas Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

But Hannibal doesn’t just nod its head in acknowledgement of its own complicity in portraying violence in an attractive form: it also uses the tools of film form to sensitize its audience to the methods by which that aestheticization takes place. As Gwyn Symonds has argued in The Aesthetics of Violence in Contemporary Media (2008), the contemporary ability to render images of wounds or body parts in extraordinary detail with special effects and CGI can depersonalize the violence done to the body, and “fetishize physical damage” (Symonds 176). Shows like CSI take this ability to its extremes by focusing on the forensic recreation of what violent crime does to a body, for example by following the trajectory of a bullet into a victim. Symonds argues that this level of detail goes so far beyond what is perceptible to a human observer that shows that focus on violence in this way attain a kind of hyperreal representation: “no longer actuality, but […] its tangible transcendence” (Symonds 178).   

Hannibal appears to aim for just such a hyperreal aesthetic: not through CGI, but through the manipulation of depth of field, extreme close ups and frame rates. Such techniques place the audience in a position of observing the world of Hannibal as if their own senses and perception were so heightened as to allow them to see in microscopic detail, and slowed-down time. Symonds quotes Geoff King and Tanya Kryzwinska as arguing that this kind of hyperrealism offers: “…a spectacle of realism: degrees of graphical realism that are flaunted and designed to be admired as striking or impressive images in their own right” (Symonds 179). And, Symonds suggests, it is “this emphasis on spectacle that reminds the viewer that it is not the authentically actual but the narrative illusion of it that is being observed” (Symonds 179). Alongside the visual stylization that Hannibal borrows from Sirk’s melodramas, this form of hyperreal representation serves to alert the show’s viewers to the methods by which the show’s representations are constructed.     

Perhaps it is Hannibal’s status as a network show that affords it this peculiarly self-aware position: unlike the shows made by HBO or other cable networks, Hannibal must make a special effort to distinguish itself visually so as to qualify in the eyes of viewers as “not regular TV” and, unlike those cable shows, it faces greater restrictions on its content. Its network origins mean that it doesn’t have direct access to the cultural capital built up by the likes of HBO, and must establish its “quality” credentials. But Hannibal doesn’t just aim to replicate the amalgam of low and high culture aesthetics that populate cable’s “quality TV” shows. Instead, it offers its viewers a meditation on the place of such shows in the cultural landscape: it lays bare both that amalgam of pulp and elite cultural forms that shape such shows, and the de-personalizing violence that they often contain. In short, it trains its viewers to approach other examples of “quality TV” as informed consumers, who are then better placed to locate shows like True Detective or Game of Thrones in the context of the popular genres they have emerged from, and to examine the violence they portray in a critical way.

CITATION: Rowena Clarke, “Consuming Television’s Golden Age with Hannibal Lecter,” Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016): n. pag. Web. 31 May 2016,

Rowena Clarke is a PhD student in the English Department at Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on the literature and culture of post-war Britain and America. Rowena co-convenes the Contemporary Literature and Globalization research group at Boston College,and has served as a teaching assistant and section leader for the undergraduate course The City in Film and Literature.

Works Cited:

“Fromage”. (2013, May 16). Hannibal . NBC.

Brody, R. “Movie of the Week: Written on the Wind”. The New Yorker. 15 December 2015 (accessed 17 May 2016):

Jethen, P. Kierkegaard, Aesthetics and Selfhood (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014).

Kaufman, S. “Game Of Thrones Cordially Invites You to Take a Damn Seat at the Kiddie table” . The AV Club, 10 April 2014 (accessed 10 May 2016):–203286

Symonds, G. The Aesthetics of Violence in Contemporary Media (New York: Continuum, 2008).

Thompson, R. J. Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER (New York: Continuum Press, 1996).

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