I had pretty high hopes for the new FOX drama, The Following. Most of those hopes rested on the fact that it meant Kevin Bacon would be on network television. I’m not a huge Bacon fan, and I haven’t really watched AND enjoyed a network drama since Lost and 24 went off the air (and even the last seasons of those shows were pushing it). I figured The Following might be a chance for me to get back into a network drama (my soon-to-be-completed dalliance with Last Resort just didn’t work out, for either of us).
Perhaps I should have been a bit more wary knowing that this was a show with a serial killer as a second lead (at least that’s what the marketing suggests of James Purefoy, though he gets the “and” credit). Showtime has more than filled my serial killer quota for a while, and though I wasn’t expecting The Following to be Dexter (it really isn’t), maybe a killer wouldn’t hold my interest. Also, this is a cop show at its core, and if it goes for any extended length of time, I assume it’s going to become somewhat procedural. I don’t really watch procedurals (so any comparison you make to CBS’ stable of dramas will be lost on me, the same goes for the Law & Order franchise). Lastly, I didn’t realize that this show was created by Kevin Williamson (he of Scream-writing “fame”) until about a week before it premiered. I can respect Scream for what it did for the horror genre in 1996, but I can’t say I’m a fan of any of Williamson’s work.
The few reviews I’ve seen and heard about The Following haven’t been good, so I was prepared to not like this show for which I initially had such high hopes. What’s the verdict? If you couldn’t tell by the title of this post, well, go back and look at it. However, if you want the long story, keep reading.
The episode opens with a suspicious-looking prison guard going home for the night. His buddies say good night to him and he drives off. It turns out he’s actually serial killer Joe Carroll (Purefoy), who somehow managed to escape with the help of 5 prison guards…being murdered. It’s a bloody aftermath, but not exactly shocking.
Former FBI agent (and author) Ryan Hardy (Bacon) sees the news report and gets the old “it’s been a while, hasn’t it? We need your help” phone call. You see, Hardy is the agent who investigated and captured Carroll in the first place, and then he wrote a book about it. He goes to the prison and meets some other agents, including a woman who looks like the love child of Natalie Dormer and Timothy Olyphant, with freckles (Jeananne Goossen).
Also there is an upstart young agent who is Hardy’s biggest fan and who will even go so far as to look past his apparent drinking problem (Shawn “Iceman” Ashmore). Yes, it seems Hardy has a drinking problem, filling his water bottles with vodka. Still, wouldn’t you have a drinking problem if you tracked down a serial killer and were stabbed in the heart while doing so? Oh yeah, he got stabbed in the heart. I wonder how survivable that is (see number 5), but I have to assume the showrunners have done at least some research.
To this point, it’s all mostly uninteresting, even the fact that Carroll cut out the eyes of his victims (all young women) and especially the fact that Carroll was a literature professor with an obsession with Edgar Allen Poe. We do get a genuinely creepy moment when a woman (one of Carroll’s many prison visitor “groupies”) who is waiting to potentially provide information about Carroll gets a phone call. She immediately strips to her skivvies, revealing the writings (of Poe, of course) all over her body, and then stabs herself in the eye with an ice pick. It worked for me, at least to the point of making me cringe/shiver a little bit.
Meanwhile, the cops have located Dr. Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace…as a doctor…) who was Carroll’s last victim. Of course, she survived, and she’s the one who testified to get him sent to prison. Turns out she was one of his literature students and she also understood Poe, particularly his belief that nothing was more beautiful than the death of a beautiful woman. Her extra credit came in the form of several stab wounds and a desire to kill herself rather than live with the pain. We see the attack in flashback. She now lives next door to two gay guys who are her friends, protectors and probably fashion critics (though we never get that far). When the first neighbor showed up, I immediately thought that he was probably going to turn out to be a bad guy, a part of Carroll’s “following”.
The idea of Carroll having a following of disciples out in the world is not revealed until a bit later in the episode, but it is one thing I knew about the show going in, which is why I was suspicious of gay neighbor #1. Somehow Carroll has managed to convince people to act as what amount to sleeper agents who are unquestionably willing to do his bidding. That’s how he managed to escape prison, with the help of a prison guard turned killer. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that he’d somehow be able to do all of this from prison, but with the help of the internet (as Iceman more or less tells us), anything is possible!
Hardy and Co. investigate the home of Carroll’s prison break accomplice. The tactical team barges in and declares the house “clear” in about 5 seconds. It’s ridiculous. It becomes even more ridiculous when a couple minutes later they find a room that APPARENTLY NOBODY BOTHERED TO CHECK IN THE INITIAL SWEEP full of bloody tools and, dead/dying dogs on which the guy was “practicing”. “He’s killing dogs,” I thought, “now we hate this guy.” After a commercial, Iceman explains the exact same thing. Thanks buddy, but we know it’s not cool to kill the dog on a TV show or movie (though apparently Wes Anderson is cool with it).
Hardy decides it’s time to go talk to Dr. Sarah, but when he arrives at her house (which is surrounded by cops) he finds that she’s been…wait for it…Taken! The gay neighbors (gaybors?) have kidnapped her. They’re BOTH part of the following. Welcome back to network television, stereotypically evil/demonic gay character(s). Isn’t progress overrated? It’s somewhat doubtful that they are actually gay, but it is clear that they’re working for Carroll when Hardy discovers a couple of dead cops and the word “Nevermore” written in blood on a garage wall. Or maybe it isn’t so clear, because it takes Hardy a full minute (plus whatever time might have elapsed during the commercial break) to connect “nevermore” to Poe’s “The Raven”. And Hardy’s the expert on this guy? Give me a break. This Poe stuff seems a bit forced. More on that later.
I haven’t yet mentioned the presence of Natalie Zea (whom you may know from Justified) as Carroll’s ex-wife Claire. Maybe I haven’t mentioned her because she doesn’t have a whole lot (that is interesting) to do. You see, she was also a professor when the murders were happening. It turns out that she was the one who directed Hardy to her husband after Hardy asked her advice about the literary connection between the murders (there were 14 in all, in case you were wondering). It is also revealed that Hardy and Claire had a romantic relationship and it is hinted that Hardy is actually the father of her son (though how strong the hint is, I’ll leave up to you).
As Hardy tries to decide what to do next, we’re treated to a flashback of him that coincides with Dr. Sarah’s flashback. Back in the day, he bumped into her on her way home and he decided to follow her, I guess because he thought she might get attacked? Anyway, he was right and he ends up getting a knife to the heart from Carroll. Just as Carroll is about to slit Dr. Sarah’s throat, Hardy pops up (hole in his heart and all) and shoots Carroll. He’s a hero.
Back in the present, Hardy simultaneously gets a couple of clues from different sources which he decides to put together and, voilà, they lead him to where the gaybors have certainly gone, the Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast in Lake Whitehurst, VA. Of course, it could also have something to do with the picture of a lighthouse on the wall of Carroll’s cell, or the one that adorns the cover of his book, The Gothic Sea, which was his own pseudo-completion of Poe’s last, unfinished work, “The Light-House“.
Hardy decides to go rogue. He arrives at the (abandoned and crumbling, naturally) Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast and hears screaming. He runs up the stairs, wearing himself out in the process (bad heart, you know), and finds Carroll there with a tape recorder of Dr. Sarah’s screams. Then, in the best moment of the episode, Carroll reveals that Hardy is too late. Dr. Sarah’s eyeless body drops down from the ceiling, suspended from a rope. She dangles there, lifelessly, a symbol of Hardy’s ultimate failure to save her. Hardy starts to choke Carroll but is stopped by the other agents who apparently followed/tracked him there (we don’t get that bit of predictable exposition). Carroll surrenders willingly. It turns out he just wanted to finish the job he started 10 years ago.
So they’ve captured Carroll, but there are still seven minutes left in the episode. Why not fill it with a confrontation between our two leads? It’s a nice scene, well acted and filled with building tension. Unfortunately, it’s not compellingly written. Carroll goes on about how killing Dr. Sarah was just the ending to his first book, one written just for Hardy (one full of “literati pretense,” — way to be self-aware, Williamson). His next one is going to reach a wider audience, with Hardy as his flawed hero and Claire as the love interest. Kevin Williamson is in full Scream mode here, although instead of making movies, the killer is writing books. The characters even say things like “every good story needs a love interest,” “this is merely a prologue,” and, cheesily, “If this book ends with anything other than your death, you better plan on a rewrite.” It kind of hits you over the head.
Carroll also tells Hardy that he wants to see Claire. Hardy tells him that this won’t happen, but Carroll knows he has an ace (or several aces) in the hole. This confrontation is intercut with Claire realizing her son is gone and with the kid’s babysitter/nanny meeting up with the gaybors. Of course, Hardy doesn’t know this yet, nor does he know how deep the “following” goes, but that doesn’t stop him from breaking one or more of Carroll’s fingers.
The last scene is also intercut with our dog-killing prison guard talking his way into a sorority house in order to “check the doors and windows” because you can’t be too careful, even though Carroll’s been caught and even though it’s INSANELY EASY to lock a door or a window even for a sorority girl (no offense, it’s just…this show…).
So, while I was genuinely entertained by about 2.5 scenes in the episode, I was turned off by most of the writing and I was simply indifferent to the rest. Williamson’s decision to give his killer the unique obsession with Poe just seems unnecessary. I suppose it kind of works as something for a deranged person to be fixated on, or even as a motivation, but to have everything point to Poe is a bit much. Why write Poe’s words all over the first woman? Why waste time painting “Nevermore” in blood? I know the argument “but it’s a TV show” holds some weight here. However, it’s like Williamson just arbitrarily decided that he needed this creepy hook and he’s trying to force it in. That last sentence sounded oddly reminiscent of I Know What You Did Last Summer (also scripted by Williamson). The need for a literary connection is uncertain and might have worked better with a little more thought and planning. Yes, there’s a surface-level creepiness that comes with saying your killer is obsessed with Poe, but here it’s ultimately hollow (see Se7en for a way to make a killer’s obsession/motive interesting and effective, albeit in an R-rated realm).
There are a couple of moments here that might grab viewers, including the final confrontation between Bacon and Purefoy, but this episode doesn’t hook quite as well as a pilot should, in my opinion. Bacon’s not bad, and I guess his presence elevates the material, but he seldom shines. Purefoy is just as good, but his role is much flashier, and a certain amount of scenery is chewed.
One observation I had as Hardy approached the Lighthouse B&B, flashlight beam waving out before him, was that The Following would have worked better as a fast-paced, monster-of-the-week episode of The X-Files. Think about it: You wouldn’t have to take time to establish the lead(s). You wouldn’t have to worry about how the Purefoy character set up his following (because this show sure doesn’t). In fact you could make his control of his disciples some sort of supernatural connection. You wouldn’t need to make the network of disciples as vast as The Following might, you could just do 3-4 people. You tighten up, or completely jettison the literary references, along with the ex-wife & kid. You keep all of the same major pre-act-break moments (the escape, the ice pick, the reveal of the accomplice, the disappearance of the survivor) and then your last act has the killer being apprehended or killed (along with some/all of his “following”). Then you close out with the reveal that maybe there’s still a “follower” or two out there. You could even keep the killer alive at the end to hint that his work isn’t done. Boom. Great standalone hour of an existing TV show, without the burden of trying to keep the premise going (or successfully evolve beyond it) should the show continue at length. Of course The X-Files isn’t on the air anymore, but still, you could translate this to some other cop show.
In the end The Following isn’t awful, but parts of it are. Those parts outweigh the good parts in this episode. Whether they’ll fix it in the future remains to be seen (Many of the early reports are not great, though Matt Zoller Seitz liked it, after episode 2). I wouldn’t fault you for watching this episode, particularly if you’re curious, like I was, or if Justified, Downton Abbey and the NBC comedies aren’t enough to keep you occupied. However, you probably don’t need to bother with it either.
Now watch it become a massive hit.