I wrote a little while ago comparing Silence of the Lambs to The Good Wife, which was a bizarre enough juxtaposition that it kept me thinking. Silence, of course, isn’t the most recent property to star Hannibal Lecter. In fact, the most recent (NBC’s strange, horrific, wonderful Hannibal) certainly has more in common with The Good Wife than the 1991 film. For one thing, both are modern television shows, still airing on major networks; more interestingly, both are (or at least commonly present themselves as) procedurals, television’s favorite format for churning out episodes in bulk, with a built-in case-of-the-week structure.
The Good Wife is essentially a legal drama, and Hannibal is essentially a police procedural, but both treat that “essential” nature differently. Neither acts like a Law and Order or a CSI. Those shows are built around syndication; serialized stories happen but are relatively rare, characters are easy-to-grasp archetypes, and bad guys are introduced and dispatched within the same 44 or so minutes of airtime. The idea is that I can drop in on episode 12 of season 67 of CSI: Nantucket and it won’t take longer than a minute or so to understand who the good guys are, what their roles are (manly cop hero, computer geek, wisecracking sidekick, etc.), and what I should expect to see just before each commercial break.
Hannibal, in its best episodes and when it’s using its best instincts, ignores the trappings of the police procedural almost entirely. Bryan Fuller’s show replaces explicable, coherent weekly villains with insane, absurd creators of ghastly art. Plausibility or practicality take a back seat (if they’re even allowed in the car) to aesthetic and thematic resonance. By the latter I mean that the weekly psychos exist not to tell weekly mini-stories, but to reflect the psychological damage or progression of the show’s main characters. Hannibal uses the police procedural only insofar as it allows the show to play around in a larger sandbox, expanding the ways in which it can communicate about death, suffering, passion, and art.
I love that show, but I actually think The Good Wife might be more interesting than Hannibal in this respect because it doesn’t throw away the conceit. The CBS show usually has a legal case of the week, even in episodes or arcs where a lot of serialized content is running around in the main plot and subplots. What those cases provide, perhaps more than anything else, is a release valve for a show that might otherwise cannibalize all its worldbuilding detail.
The Good Wife juggles legal, political, and domestic stories not only with ease but with the eagerness of a street performer; its characters (especially Alicia, its lead) are constantly on the brink of exhaustion, running from one thing to the next. In most of the plots, we deal with the same players: Alicia’s ex-husband Peter, his mother Jackie, and his political aide Eli Gold; Alicia’s two children, Grace and Zach; and Alicia’s coworkers, Will and Diane and Cary Agos and so on.
Lots of names, sure–but this is a show on its fifth season. Audiences are familiar with all of these characters; their subplots revolve around similar themes or plotlines, and the show is often at its weakest when it re-explores plots that didn’t work the first time around (see: any extended plot involving a Kalinda rival/love interest).
So, how does a show that thrives on throwing subplots on top of subplots handle the potential to burn out its reserves? With a case of the week, of course. The procedural format allows the show to introduce new elements as a matter of course. After all, the audience won’t be upset that new actors are being added arbitrarily if new actors pop up every episode. The Good Wife has used this to introduce new recurring characters (Dylan Baker’s Colin Sweeney, for example, or Amanda Peet’s military lawyer from season 4) or whole chunks of worldbuilding (the most frequently-appearing case being the somewhat ridiculous Google analogue ChumHum). Or the show can discard a new character after their 44 minutes are up. It gives The Good Wife the shaggy, loose-end-filled feel of real life, and it allows the writers to keep fresh voices and perspectives on screen even while straining to run 100 miles per hour at all times.
Hannibal doesn’t have this problem; it’s telling a focused story that would suffer from The Good Wife’s deliberate shagginess. It’s telling, to that end, that Hannibal gets 13-episode season orders, while The Good Wife produces 22 per season. Each production has its own needs and problems; it’s interesting to see, then, how these shows deal with a similar problem differently based on their distinct needs.