David Walker discusses Bryan Fuller’s many TV shows
Bryan Fuller has had a fascinating career, notable for creating TV shows that were critical darlings, fan favourites and cult classics that were cancelled before their time. Responsible for Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, Fuller is now involved in a TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, due to debut in 2017 – making now a good time to review some of the themes that have characterised his work so far.
Fuller’s shows have never been looked upon favourably by those that commissioned them; like so many other classics, their beloved status did not save them from the death-grip of low ratings. His first show, Wonderfalls, set the tone dramatically : it was cancelled after the airing of just four episodes. But it is a credit to the quality of them that fan pressure convinced FOX to release the rest of the season on DVD – without which the episodes would likely remain lost.
The release of Wonderfalls was of great benefit to Fuller and to everyone, not least because the strange and surreal comedy is a delight to indulge in. But its value now also stems from the template it set for Fuller’s later shows; echoes of the themes of nihilism and aimlessness contrasted with a purposeful supernatural background are found in his two subsequent shows – Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies.
Wonderfalls told the story of a recently graduated girl who, after excusing herself from the world and responsibility in general, begins to be given cryptic and prophetic advice from talking objects. Dead Like Me took the metaphor one step further, by actually killing the young, directionless woman in the first episode – only to give her the job of a Grim Reaper. In Pushing Daisies the girl is just beginning to explore her world when she gets murdered – only to be dragged back to the land of the living by the inexplicable abilities of the protagonist.
While these similarities may suggest the shows are repetitive, Fuller’s continuous development of his style and his exploration of subtly different philosophical themes in each installation keep them feeling fresh. The surprising contrast between the shows can also be attributed to their detailed and tonally unique settings: Wonderfalls takes place in a town that feels deliberately oppressive in its mundanity, only transiently shattered by talking toys. Dead Like Me uses an actively un-curious protagonist to make the viewer beg to know more about the clearly intricately planned backstory of morbid realities played for laughs. Pushing Daisies tells complex stories in a cartoonish world full of ridiculous caricatures. By imbuing a distinct nature into each of the universes, Fuller produced three shows that were wholly different yet essentially the same.
However, Pushing Daisies must really be considered the pinnacle of this storytelling technique. With its incredibly fast-paced and witty dialogue filled with incisive insights into human nature, the story of the man who brings people back from the dead is rightly revered as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. The writing is just as consistent in terms of the long-term arcs and the impeccable acting from the all-star cast, not to mention the creative cinematography that earned Pushing Daisies its cult classic status. And this, perhaps, is why Fuller threw out this template all together for Hannibal.
Of course the stark difference in tone between Hannibal and Fuller’s previous shows is likely attributable to the change in subject matter as much as his sense of having reached the zenith of his previous writing model. Hannibal is an esoteric, philosophical and atmospheric show whose unoriginal premise – a detective savant using a vaguely defined social disorder to solve murders – immediately gives way to the fascinating and unique content of the show.
Hannibal is not a case-of-the-week procedural, but an intricate dance of psychological manipulation in which everyone speaks in fluent subtext and the story is told in imagery and metaphor. Even beyond the writing, Hannibal truly is art in forty-five minute chunks – cinematographer James Hawkinson displayed every gruesome tableau and tense, slow exchange of verbal daggers with superb style. Grisly though the scenes are, the constant intertwining of themes of death and beauty leaves you with a confused sense of morality and loyalty with regards to the eponymous charismatic murderer.
Hannibal was the first of Fuller’s shows to be given a third season, allowing it to have an actual ending to cap off the mercurial story in a satisfying way. This presents immediate contrast to Pushing Daisies, whose abrupt cancellation during the second season left as many loose threads as saddened fans. However, with the huge critical success of Hannibal and the increasing move within the broadcasting world towards high-quality long form shows, Fuller’s next project will hopefully give him the chance to show off what he can do when he’s given a few years to build one of his wondrous worlds. I can hardly wait.
Featured image: Esquire