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The Following: Bloody Awful

The Following, which premiered to much hype on Fox last night, seems to believe the recipe for ambitious cable-style drama is Karo syrup plus red food coloring.

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Is The Following a cable-style drama on network TV? It depends what you think defines “cable-style drama.” Blood, horror, grim sadism, baroque separation of characters from their viscera? Then maybe.

But there’s really a closer analogue for the serial-killer drama, which debuted last night. The Following isn’t a cable drama on network. It’s a CBS drama on Fox. Serial killers? Criminal Minds had those for years. A serial-killer mastermind with a legion of twisted followers? Ditto, but The Mentalist. Horrific murders, children in peril, thriller twists and a general sense that we live in a sick, sad, world? That is, more or less, every crime drama CBS has done since CSI debuted in 2000.

The Following does have more on-screen violence, showing things that the CBS shows will usually leave to the imagination—lots of stabbings and impalings with those trademark Walking Dead sound effects that sound like someone carving a pumpkin filled with jelly. What The Following doesn’t have that distinguishes cable dramas–at least the ambitious ones on Showtime, HBO, AMC or sister station FX–is any serious attempt to rethink the characters and clichés of its genre. Even Dexter, which has stayed on the air past the point of plausibility, was based in a novel approach to the serial-killer genre, taken from its source novels: the serial killer is the protagonist, is aware of his sickness and attempts to channel his proclivities away from harming the innocent.

But Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) fits a pretty common profile from any number of thriller movies: the demented genius with a gimmick. His is that he’s a literature professor, basing his and his followers’ crimes on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But that’s less a description of character than window dressing for a familiar criminal type, and no amount of leering interrogation sequences or pseudo-academic literary analysis flesh him out any more deeply. We’re meant to believe he’s a charismatic molder of minds, but he just comes off as a self-satisfied douche, a messianic professor as imagined by someone who must have really hated college.

Where The Following does differ from CBS’s stable of crime dramas is that it’s a serial: so, unlike Criminal Minds or Person of Interest, you don’t get a bad guy caught or killed at the end of every episode. Instead, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) glares and trudges on, dealing with mini-crises within the larger story of Carroll’s killer network and his personal vendetta. In this respect, it’s much like Fox’s 24–the small-scale, more personal first season, but with the Serbian terror network replaced by a thrill-kill cult. Moles are everywhere, surprises are around every corner, nowhere is safe.

The appeal of that first 24 season, though, depended a lot on how new and fresh the storytelling felt: the real-time scheme, the relentless pace, the depiction of Jack Bauer as a tired but dogged warrior. The Following doesn’t have that newness, though Bacon does bring a Kiefer-like weary soulfulness to the role of Hardy. In 2001, it would have been one of the most groundbreaking things on TV; in 2013, it’s just the bloodiest thing you can watch for free with rabbit-ear antennae.

So how much you enjoy The Following will largely depend on how much you like it as a pure, disturbing thriller. You’re not going to be watching it for the laughs: it’s thoroughly grim, relentless and unsparing of the People Freaked Out By Violence Involving the Eyes community (of which I am a member). You’re not watching for the brilliant dialogue: it’s the sort of show where Hardy gets reminded “You don’t play well with others” and the murderers get cruel one-liners that could have come from a McBain movie (“Relax, it’s only a flesh wound”).

But—surprisingly, considering how well creator Kevin Williamson tweaked slasher movies in Scream—there’s not much life in all this death, no sense of an animating idea to the series beyond, “Damn, shit is messed up.” After one episode, I found it mildly interesting. After four episodes–what Fox sent to critics–it was just exhausting, a numbing, gross-out slog.

I will say that the criticism that The Following is irresponsible after the Sandy Hook shootings is unfair. There’s no stylized gunplay in this show—it prefers much more intimate murder implements—and it doesn’t exactly valorize Carroll or his twisted disciples. But the show doesn’t need a contemporary news peg to feel cynically brutal, nor do you have to be a prude about violence to think it’s cheaply shocking. There’s nothing wrong with horrific violence that tells an original story, but it doesn’t take much creativity to simply tie up helpless people at knifepoint, over and over, to get a reaction. That’s not suspense, it’s just reflex.

I don’t know if there is a single recipe for creating ambitious, challenging, cable-style drama. But contrary to what The Following’s makers seem to believe, it’s more than just Karo syrup plus red food coloring.

16 comments
tonewall
tonewall

thank god its done...i literaly watched it to see if it could get any worse.

SandyMaliga
SandyMaliga

Like "24" this Fox show promotes torture.

tonewall
tonewall like.author.displayName 1 Like

this series makes me wish Justified was on twice a week....terrible ..keep hoping it will get better...but it hasn't.

Saturnhazel
Saturnhazel

I'm hooked on The Following. Bacon and Purefoy are brilliant and entertaining. I'm glad the show got renewed for another season.

godhelpus-2
godhelpus-2

We need to question how far we have gone down the road of promoting violence when we have a series that shows explicitly bludgeoning of a person and the thrill of the murderer doing it.

joemiroballi
joemiroballi

I couldn't agree more with don and others. The series has more holes than a swiss cheese and smells  worse. How is it that there are only 3-4 people in the law enforcement  working on this horrific case. There were  not one but three people watching the house and she kills the cop, the husband shows up, and while the Husband and wife try to escape, shots are fired, the wife gets away, Beacon goes back in the house and young cop is sitting there with a stupid look on his face. The killers are ten times smarter and luckier than the keystone cops. Its the worst screenplay I have ever seen. And don't get me started on Beacons beard. I am so done!

donmelissanicky
donmelissanicky

After last night's show I'm finished with it. The animal torture bothered me from the earlier episode, but once they crossed that "line" of using the boy to torture and kill animals in order to train him to be a killer, I'd reached the edge. I have a 9 year old son and it was too close to home. I'll stick with shows about zombies and Russian spies, thank you (Too bad there isn't a show with BOTH).

AmyC520
AmyC520

Just law last night's episode and suddenly I'm done with the show.  I agree with Geoff that Kevin Bacon is the only thing worth watching--he's great, and I loved him in the premiere especially, and was excited to see more.  I love a good thriller and a good crime drama series, but I don't want to spend my TV time watch a gore-fest with Kevin Bacon's soulfully tortured face between each more-gruesome act of violence.  I need the good guys to gain some ground here.  If this is the upward slope of this story arc, it is too steep and too long for me.  I'm exhausted.  Oh, and the eye thing?  It is so over-the-top, I find it laughable.  Maybe I am dissociating...at any rate, I agree with every point the writer makes.

CheoMentiras
CheoMentiras like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

We must be watching two different series. I'm watching an innovative, gripping, well-made and entertaining one.

tonewall
tonewall

@CheoMentiras innovative ...how....gripping "I bet the'll be a killin and Bacon will miss shooting the bad guys....well made...Purefoy makes me miss the series ROME ...entertaining...if you like murdering helpless people as the only plot line ...yeah I guess.

Wrangler__
Wrangler__ like.author.displayName 1 Like

That was my initial reaction as well. And to think that this is on broadcast TV really bothers me. So much gratuitous, graphic violence that any child with a set of rabbit ears can watch is troublesome. With so much attention on gun violence, maybe more accurately we should just focus on the 'violence' itself and what factors could possibly lead to someone making the decision that the answers to their problems is to go kill elementary students?
I shudder to think what watching such gore on prime TV and the impact of the video game industry has on young fertile minds. When Janet Jackson had her 'wardrobe malfunction' during the Superbowl Americans where up in arms about the possibility that a child may have gotten a glimpse of a breast. Where is the outrage that children were exposed to "The Following?" A program like this should only be available on pay-TV (HBO, Showtime, etc.) so that a parent would have to make a conscious decision to bring it into their home. 

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

Another Kevin Bacon fan here, so I DVR'd it and watched last night.  I'm with James on the Anti-Eye-Violence movement.  As a literati of sorts, I really didn't like the Poe material.  Nothing of what he said in class struck me as "brilliant."  I would have dropped it.  NEVERMORE isn't scary.  It's a common buzzword, to be intoned solemnly when indicating that your daughter is never getting her hands on your Costco card again.  (Doesn't look like I will, either.)  I knew the woman in the cop shop was going to do something weird when she first showed up.  You don't waste camera time on random movements of extras.  The gay neighbors were more of a disappointment than a surprise.  Really?  Is nothing sacred?  Apparently not.  The nanny?  Wasn't there a movie about the scary nanny already?  

I think what I really wanted was something like Kyra Sedgwick, framed for the murder of Chief Pope and on the run, pursued by her new nemesis, Kevin Bacon.  There.  That's the ticket.   

In the meantime, there's this:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BIGhVg8ZII.  Just carry a bottle of castor oil spray, and watch the moles run!


vrcplou
vrcplou like.author.displayName 1 Like

When you get four episodes to preview do you watch them back-to-back or spread them out?  I'm wondering if that adds to the "grim" factor.  If you spread them out over a week, maybe it would seem different?  Or not; I haven't watched the show yet.  I wonder if it's a little bit like how I feel about the Smiths - I love their music but one or two songs at a time is sufficient.  After that it becomes brutal annoyance.

dartangnonkitty
dartangnonkitty

Thanks for the review James! I’ve been excited to see this show ever since I heard that Kevin Bacon is the star. Given how much I like fictitious shows that have a taste of realism, I imagine that I will enjoy this one. In fact, it’s disappointing that I have to work nights at my job at DISH, especially with this new show. But, I’m setting my DISH Hopper to auto-record the big 4 networks during prime time hours using PrimeTime Anytime. This way I can look forward to the weekend when I can relax and see what this new thriller has to offer.

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The show I thought it had the most in common is Luther - the same hyper-gory "mastermind" sketched against a backdrop of unrelenting misery.

Overall, the show just felt mean and depressing, and Kevin Bacon is the only watchable part of the show (or maybe it's just apartment envy. Loft on the waterfront in DUMBO? Yes please.)