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Of course Fox couldn’t have known that a mass murder of schoolchildren — where the motives were unknowable — would shock the nation not long before the release of its series about a mass murderer and, well, a whole bunch of his followers, who continue to spill blood all over the place while the captured killer sits in prison.
The Following, which premieres Jan. 21, was in production long before that. But Fox always has been keen on the fact that the shocking amount of blood and violence in The Following is earning the show — prematurely, lazily and incorrectly — comparisons to gritty cable fare. That means there’s tacit approval from Fox that slashing up women (and a few men along the way), carving their eyes out and letting the blood roll down into the gutter is acceptable.
That’s where it might be misjudging the mood of the country.
Beyond that misstep, the problem with simply trying to shock people with gratuitous, relentless carnage is that CBS has been goring it up for ages with its excessively dark, corrosive drama Criminal Minds, and that’s never been touted as edgy like cable.
Has anyone ever said that by taking things a step too far with butchery and murder, Criminal Minds is kind of like an HBO show?
Nope. Criminal Minds is just a show that most people, including ex-star Mandy Patinkin, believe is ruinously violent, not some grand piece of art. As Patinkin told New York magazine: “The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality.”
Patinkin should be happy he’s not Kevin Bacon, the big-name star of The Following who sees enough blood to make a Dexter fan cringe — and that’s just in the pilot. Bacon, taking on his first primetime television role, was a good get for Fox, particularly because he could have landed a cable series of his choosing. And maybe Fox is allowing rivers of blood to run in The Following, from creator Kevin Williamson, because the Bacon-and-blood combo platter will be all cable-like. Certainly, Fox is intimately aware that the show will raise eyebrows — oooh, how daring! — and that it will generate buzz for midseason.
That’s fine, as long as no one is fooled into thinking The Following is as creatively excellent as a top-notch cable show. It’s not even close. If you try to make your show like a cable series by ratcheting up the gore, you’re missing the point. Truly great cable series are well-written, avoid dubious plot choices, limit exposition and refrain from beating the viewer about the head with the Club of Obviousness.
Guess what The Following does? Yes, all of that (except the well-written thing).
Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who tracked down and caught Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a serial killer who mutilated and murdered 14 women. Hardy himself took a knife in the heart and now has the scars, physical and emotional, to show for it. However, Carroll has busted out of prison, and the FBI believes that Hardy — who wrote a best-selling book on Carroll — can help track him down before he kills again.
But that’s not Carroll’s ultimate endgame. He wants revenge on Hardy in a subversively psychological way. He wants his twisted acolytes, who follow him like a cult leader (Charlie Manson much?) to write their own “chapters” by killing in his stead. Apparently, there’s a crazy amount of people willing to do this, thus the paranoia-generating sensation of the series that anyone around you could kill you at any moment. Especially if they get a phone call that tells them to do it.
How can Carroll control so many people (beyond the fact that Purefoy is pretty darned charming with his British accent)? Well, FBI cult specialist Debra Parker (Annie Parisse) believes he’s aided by modernity. OK, more specifically, the fact that everyone is plugged into the web. No, really: “There’s this pathology to today’s info-bred minds. There’s a vacancy in our humanity.”
Unplug and hug, people, or pretty soon you’ll fall prey to some magnetic and charming mass murderer who wants you to write Edgar Allan Poe verse all over your naked body. After that, you’ll be out writing your “chapter” of death.
If you like book metaphors, especially ones that fall on you like a pallet of anvils, you’ll love The Following. See, Carroll was an English professor obsessed with Poe — and, perhaps more so, Poe’s notion that there’s a special beauty in death. Or as Parker, the FBI cult specialist with a minor in religious nuttery, translates: “The only way to truly live is to kill. Or some crap like that.”
Ah, crap. Yes. There is a pattern there.
Poor Poe. His reputation as a romancer of death, a lover of the macabre and the writer of The Raven is used as a blunt instrument of torture in The Following. How? By having Williamson hit viewers repeatedly and excessively over the head with the theme until they’re bloody and unconscious — Poe, Raven, Poe, beauty of death, Raven quotes, bloody eyes, Poe, “nevermore,” ravens, more Poe quotes and Poe/Raven connections. Oh, for Christ’s sake, we get it. Now uncrush our heads.
For all the hoopla about Bacon coming to primetime television, it’s not like he leaves much of an indelible mark. His acting is fine, but his presence doesn’t grip you like the traditional best actor nominees — Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, etc. Part of it might be the role. Bacon’s a downbeat, wounded ex-agent with drinking problem, so it’s not like he’s throwing off sparks. And yet, you wish he were more like Timothy Olyphant (Justified), who is magnetic when laconic. Again, much of this is the fault of the writing. Bacon’s not getting much to work with.
If Fox is thinking “cable” in its dreamy head, the result isn’t replicated visually. The Following looks like a slick broadcast series, period. It doesn’t have any regional feel (Breaking Bad, Justified), isn’t reliant on distinctive costuming (Mad Men, Game of Thrones) and has none of that instant distinction an expensive, detail-oriented cable series might provide (Boardwalk Empire). It looks, again, like a network show.
Anyway, this is not to suggest that The Following is not scary. It’s plenty scary. Somebody evil is forever outwitting the police, materializing out of thin air, stabbing other people, usually in a place (neck, eyes, etc.) where buckets of blood will splash out. Being killed by knife is a rougher deal than taking a bullet, and all the victims in this show really make you feel like it hurts like hell. (In fairness, it’s not all knives; one person is doused with gasoline and lit on fire while he’s trying to buy a hot dog from the corner stand. On the other hand, that same killer later stabs someone four or five times — and tells the dying man that he’s the first person he’s killed with a knife.)
It also hurts like hell to think that someone might confuse excess with art. If you want some scares and Criminal Minds-level inspired sickness, you will find that in The Following. But no matter how you slice it, you won’t find a quality cable series hiding inside.
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