The Following may very well be the most insulting show on television.
It’s not that the Fox drama—about the hunt for an escaped serial killer and the community of wannabe serial killers that he’d built up around him—actively insults those who tune in. Indeed, it’s a relatively smart, tense drama peppered with references to Edgar Allen Poe and cultural and technological concepts that aren’t necessarily real (or logical). However, every single episode since the pilot has hinged on one basic concept: The good guys are apparently idiots.
At first, I was okay with this. I could accept that law-enforcement might be fallible; otherwise, the show would be an hour of Kevin Bacon’s former FBI agent Ryan Hardy talking to James Purefoy’s creepy-yet-charming psychopath Joe Carroll, explaining that there was no way that an imprisoned serial killer would’ve been able to use the Internet to set up thousands of websites to gain acolytes without everyone in the prison knowing about it (and logging the IP addresses of those visiting the sites).
So, that initial oversight could be forgiven. After all, there comes a point in almost every story where something impossible — or, at least, hugely unlikely — has to happen to create some form of dramatic tension. And in most of those cases, we find ourselves a willing accomplice to whatever crimes of credibility are committed. Sure, we may roll our eyes in comic frustration and mutter a Oh, come on — but on the whole, we’re willing to forgive a lot if it means exciting things happen in our fictions.
The problem with The Following is that these moments of idiocy are not few and far between. In fact, as Vulture pointed out earlier this week, every single episode of the show has asked us to believe that the FBI agents hunting the serial killing cult have made at least one fatal, and often ridiculous, error in judgment or procedure that prevents them from catching the bad guys.
I get what the show is trying to do here; it’s obvious that we’re meant to feel that, no matter what Ryan and his team does, they remain one step behind Carroll because Carroll is that smart and has planned everything in advance. It’s a way to ratchet up the tension and push us towards the feeling that the authorities aren’t necessarily the ones in control of the situation here — that the good guys are the underdogs, and may not ultimately save the day.
The problem is that Carroll’s successes to date have relied less upon brilliant plans that could only have come from the mind of a genius, and more the result of increasingly inept behavior from his opponents. There’s been nothing particularly impressive — or, indeed, particularly cunning — about the various schemes that have fooled the FBI team investigating the serial killing cult. And as a result, the entire series to date has left the viewer with the increasing feeling that, just maybe, the good guys aren’t very good at what it is they do.
In many ways, that feels as if it breaks some kind of agreement with the audience. In order for a show like The Following to work as a tense drama, the audience should believe that both sides are locked in a fair fight, where both sides are evenly matched. Otherwise, the show becomes something different — a potentially a darker one, where evil is cunning and ever-present, while the forces of good bumble haplessly behind.
Ultimately, that’s why The Following feels so insulting; it expects the audience to not notice — or not care — that its heroes fail to meet the standards that the format expects of them. Instead of working harder to fulfill the dynamic it advertises, or rework the show as the more pessimistic, more downbeat drama that it has become. To keep presenting it as a chase thriller, where the good guys aren’t doomed to failure on account of being incompetent — well, an audience can suspend belief for only so long.