Why pulling an episode of Hannibal after the Boston bombings was a mistake

Why pulling an episode of Hannibal after the Boston bombings was a mistake

In the days following the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon, television networks made some changes to their schedules. An episode of the ABC crime drama Castle, in which a main character steps on an explosive device, was pushed back a week, as was a similarly themed episode of NBC’s Revolution. Reruns of Fox’s Family Guy and New Girl were swapped out for other episodes, because they contained jokes about terrorism, bombs, or suspicious backpacks. And Hannibal—NBC’s grim new adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels—ditched its fourth episode entirely. 

In that outing, titled “Ceuf,” Molly Shannon guest stars as a psychopath who manipulates children into killing on her behalf. Because Hannibal is in part a serial drama, the network culled just the scenes that advanced the regular characters’ storylines and posted them on its website, so that fans of the series could understand the events of the next episode. (The full version has since been posted on iTunes.)

The makeshift webisode version of “Ceuf” may be unprecedented—an innovative workaround to a delicate public-relations problem and a tacit concession that television is now so sophisticated that the roughest parts cannot be neatly excised on short notice. But moving, canceling, or re-editing television programs as a response to national tragedy is not new. It has become an all-too-familiar ritual: Something terrible happens, and somewhere amid the news coverage the networks solemnly offer up their lists of entertainments that seem, suddenly, not so entertaining any more. 

Just four months ago, following the horrific elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Fox pulled episodes of Family Guy and American Dad and toned down the promotional campaign for another serial-killer drama, The Following. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Friends reshot a scene featuring bomb jokes in an airport security line. (It later resurfaced as a DVD extra.) And the new action serial 24—which would be forever paired with 9/11 in the zeitgeist—trimmed several scenes in its pilot episode, including one of a terrorist blowing up an airplane. Following the mass murder at Columbine High School in April 1999, two episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer—one featuring a disturbed, rifle-toting teenager, another the blowing up of a high school—were re-edited and delayed until the summer.

If this phenomenon feels recent—like some end-of-days, look-what-things-have-come-to-now signpost—it’s not; it’s been happening for 50 years. The assassination of John F. Kennedy on Friday, November 22, 1963, triggered a heartbreaking weekend of now-famous live news coverage, and, afterward, the networks faced the same problem that they faced last month: Was there anything coming up on their schedules that had seemed harmless on Thursday but appalling on Friday? The airwaves were scoured.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour pushed back an episode; the documentary program The Twentieth Century postponed a segment on the plot to kill Hitler; Espionage, a spy anthology, delayed an assassination-oriented episode; and Channing, a college drama, rescheduled an episode about a student’s scheme to kill his professor. An episode of the legal drama The Defenders underwent a title change, from “The Gentle Assassins” to “Climate Of Evil.” (In 1963, most TV dramas broadcast their episode titles on-screen.) Many films and records that made lighthearted reference to President Kennedy were re-edited or vanished altogether, and that applied to television as well. A reference to JFK’s catchphrase “with vigah” was deleted from an episode of The Patty Duke Show. Red Skelton excised a comedy sketch involving guns from his variety program, and The Joey Bishop Show “erased” (in Variety’s ominous wording) a taped appearance by comedian Vaughn Meader, who was briefly famous for his JFK impersonation. Needless to say, Meader’s career ended overnight.

If the JFK tragedy had a Hannibal, it was a Route 66 episode titled “I’m Here To Kill A King,” which contained a number of eerie similarities to the president’s assassination. The plot, just as lurid and unintentionally campy as anything today on The Following, Bates Motel, or American Horror Story, involved a Middle Eastern general scheming to topple his leader and a cold-blooded assassin who was a doppelgänger for the series’ star (Martin Milner, in a dual role). Dialogue included phrases like “a high-velocity bullet” and “I’m shooting him through the head,” and during the climax, the assassin perched atop—wait for it—a grassy knoll. If someone sat down and tried to create exactly the show that no one would want to see in the weeks following the murder of John F. Kennedy, “I’m Here To Kill A King” would be pretty close to that show. Not surprisingly, CBS shelved this hot potato until rerun season. 

In 1963, viewers had only three channels to choose from (at most; people in the sticks often had to settle for one or two), and the spellbinding news coverage of the assassination and its aftermath had conditioned them to process the events by gathering around the television. The shift back to “normal” television must have been jarring. Fifty years ago, it made sense, perhaps, to defer to the most passive and vulnerable viewers. But in the era of DVRs, Internet streaming, and portable devices, it has become common practice to choose and schedule our own TV viewing. The notion of the network nanny is out of date. A look at the comments sections on any of the news stories announcing these pre-emptions seems to confirm a solid consensus in favor of viewers being allowed to make their own decisions on what to watch. Media literacy has grown exponentially, yet television executives treat us exactly as they did in 1963.

Last week, Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen wrote a remarkable piece that punctured the logic of sensitivity. Guess what: In the Hannibal episode that was shown in place of “Ceuf,” one of the evil characters was motivated by the same kind of cancer that Jensen’s wife is presently battling. Guess what else: Even though that hit much closer to home than “Ceuf” would have, Jensen still wasn’t offended. Because Hannibal is just a television show—and “a show about a cannibal, after all,” Jensen wrote. Surely we all know what to expect if we opt into that.

“Click away if you can’t deal,” is Jensen’s sensible advice, and that should be the rule of thumb. But the principle of sensitivity is hard to argue against. If there’s a chance that someone, somewhere—a cousin of a Sandy Hook child, a friend of a Boston Marathoner—might tune in and be traumatized, why not preempt or “tone down”? What’s the harm in that, especially if most of the shows that get moved eventually resurface somewhere (as even “I’m Here To Kill A King” did in time)? 

The harm is more abstract than the potential suffering of a trauma victim, but it deserves consideration. If suppressing a TV show can be a ritual of respect toward those most directly affected by tragedy, it can also act as a ritual of disrespect toward the other parties in the equation: the creative people who make entertainment their trade and the audiences who create a place in their lives for their work. 

It’s revealing that the default response here is to treat television as a problem to be swept under the rug rather than a potential solution—a source of escape or a vehicle for reflection. Perhaps that’s part of a broader, puritanical, anti-intellectual streak in our culture, one that treats entertainment (and art) with suspicion, as neither a serious profession nor a worthwhile use of time. Once of the shock effects of national tragedy is to bring that cultural guilt to the surface. (Keep in mind that the Emmy Awards were postponed after 9/11 and also after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968—not because they were too difficult to deal with, but because they suddenly seemed frivolous.) And any time something like Hannibal is identified as inappropriate in relation to real-life events, it’s a tacit endorsement of the specious argument that television or movies or video games are a causal factor behind real-life violence.

Of course, when someone stops to set the contents of that Hannibal episode next to the actual events in Boston, it should give pause. Brainwashed kids killing other kids: We think that’s entertainment? Dropped into that context, “Ceuf” does sound sort of embarrassing, but clearly viewers do enjoy these shows most of the time. And which is the more useful response: to acknowledge that and contemplate what it means, or to spend a week or two pretending we’re better than what we watch on TV before slinking quietly back to our usual viewing habits? That logic can be taken to opposing extremes: Either all entertainment should strive to be in good taste all the time, or else nothing is off-limits. I tend to embrace the latter, even if it yields a lot of bad art that’s hard to defend. 

For instance, the American Horror Story episode “Piggy Piggy” depicted a Columbine-inspired school shooting in graphic detail, and in a generally exploitative context (with the ghosts of the victims, complete with gory makeup, stalking one of the main characters). I thought that storyline was repugnant, and I’d unsee it if I could, but I wouldn’t want Ryan Murphy and company to unmake it. More to the point, it seems certain that “Piggy Piggy” would have been pulled off the air had it been scheduled to run after the Sandy Hook shootings. Yet, in 2011, the episode was perfectly acceptable. Where’s the logic in that?

In June of 1968, John Kennedy’s brother Robert, then the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was murdered in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Because the event occurred during the rerun season, the networks had less cutting to do. Nevertheless, scrutiny fell upon the scripts that were in development for the fall season. Robert Kennedy’s assassination came only two months after Martin Luther King’s, and the industry entered one of its periodic spasms of anti-violence posturing: part sincere, part cynical. 

Variety reporter Dave Kaufman rounded up a list of television rewrites and producers’ reactions, under the headline “Clean-Up Week in Hollywood.” The Name Of The Game, a journalism drama, and The Wild Wild West, a Western/James Bond hybrid, would tone down the violence in specific episodes. The writer of a script about an assassination for the law-enforcement procedural The F.B.I. asked to be relieved of the assignment; the producer hadn’t decided whether to have someone else finish the script. Aaron Spelling, ever the opportunist, declared that he would incorporate lines from Senator Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for his slain brother into a pro-gun-control script for The Mod Squad.

The most remarkable reaction came from Gene L. Coon, a former Star Trek writer and producer who had become the lead producer for It Takes A Thief, a new espionage drama that debuted in 1968. Coon said that he was rewriting two scripts to remove scenes of shootings by rooftop snipers and that he was reducing the violence in 10 others. All shootings and stabbings would be excised; only fistfights would remain. Coon “sheepishly” told Kaufman that one episode had a “terribly violent ending,” and even added a blunt mea culpa: “I’m sorry about that.” 

Coon appears to have undergone a genuine and public crisis of conscience, one that has echoes in the decision by Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller not to air “Ceuf.” Fuller claimed not only that he, rather than NBC, initiated the pre-emption, but that the decision was made before the Boston bombing. “Ceuf” was filmed prior to the Newtown killings, and one has to wonder if Fuller—a cult figure best known for quirky, gentle fantasies like Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies—suddenly found the episode’s child-on-child violence distasteful after Newtown and sought a way to bury it. Jensen is more jaded in his analysis, suggesting that the inevitable Hannibal DVDs “just gained a marketable new bonus feature,” but I suspect Fuller was genuine. His statement to the press was too convoluted to have been written by a PR flack: 

“I didn’t want to have anyone come to the show and have a negative experience. 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.”

Fuller’s response is tough to criticize. Setting aside for a moment the collaborative nature of the medium, it’s Fuller’s right to rethink his own work. And how can you condemn a showrunner for contemplating his series foremost in moral terms? Still, I’m swayed less by Fuller’s reaction to tragedy, or Coon’s, than by the position taken by one of Coon’s peers in 1968. 

Roy Huggins, the creator of Maverick and The Fugitive, launched a private-eye series that fall, one that anticipated the world-weary, anti-heroic ’70s detective shows like Harry O and Huggins’s own The Rockford Files. Here’s what Huggins said about how he would alter his series The Outsider in response to the 1968 assassinations: “I’m not changing one damn thing.” He added that one of the gimmicks of The Outsider was that the sleuth, played by Darren McGavin, typically did not carry a gun. “I’m doing what I’ve always done—I eschew violence like the plague,” he told Variety. Granted, that put Huggins conveniently on the right side of the issue. But his point was that he had a concept for his show, one that already reflected his own ethical position on violence, and that was not subject to modification to suit the changing tenor of the times. (Huggins and the subsequent producers of The Outsider were eventually forced by the network to make changes to the show after that interview occurred.)

And Huggins wasn’t done yet. He turned the question back: “President Johnson blaming TV is an outrage. This is the man who sent 500,000 soldiers to Vietnam.” Huggins rejected the premise that it was the job of a TV detective program to react to unspeakable acts like the Kennedy assassinations. For Huggins, drawing television shows into that conversation was a way of letting the policymakers—who could actually create real-life change—off the hook. He understood that popular culture and current events exist in separate realms and that it was pointless, even obscene, to confuse them. 

Forty-five years and too many tragedies later, that’s still true. The relationship among television shows, the people who make them, and the people who watch them is complex and robust, and it works. The best solution in a crisis? Leave it alone.

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