TITLE: The Following
STARRING: Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Valorie Curry, Shawn Ashmore
FINALE DATE: April 29, 2013
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
I want to like The Following. I really do. That was probably the main element that kept me coming back to this show for 15 straight weeks. I wanted it to surprise me and really get good. But it never did.
The Following has a great many fans who will take issue with me on that. But for my money the show feels largely hollow. Despite the suspenseful storytelling and characters that aren’t exactly uninteresting, it lacks a certain…soul. By and large, it seems like a collection of stock characters, recurring serial killer movie themes and gory stunts tossed into a show to attract fans normally drawn to that kind of stuff. Granted, the entertainment industry exists to make money, and every TV show, movie or book is derivative of something. But The Following feels uninspired to me. As such, I found myself more and more apathetic about it as things progressed. Considering it’s supposed to be a suspense thriller, that’s probably not a good thing.
Years after being captured by F.B.I. agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), former writer, college professor, and horrendous serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) has concocted the ultimate plan for revenge. From the confines of prison, Carroll uses his bizarre cult of followers to arrange for his young son to be kidnapped, and for Hardy to be drawn into the investigation. Carroll’s ex-wife Claire (Natalie Zea) must stand by helplessly knowing her son is in the hands of murderers, specifically a trio who are involved in a bizarre love triangle. Carroll’s followers proceed to make life a living hell for Hardy, the F.B.I., and anyone who might stand in their way.
Many of us can’t help but be fascinated by the minds and methods of serial killers. Head into the true crime section of any book store and you”re bound to find titles on John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffry Dahmer and the like. Let’s certainly not discount our fixation on fictional killers like Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan. Serial killers pique our curiosity. We’re inevitably drawn to watch them from a safe distance, like children peering in on predators at a zoo. Also, serial killers are often uncannily skilled actors and manipulators who know how to say just the right things to get the reaction they’re looking for from a prospective victim. The Following hoped to capitalize on all these ideas to create a weekly psychological suspense thriller about a serial killer using his cult following to wreak havoc on the world, and the man who ruined his life. Make no mistake about it: That’s a damn good idea for a TV show.
But the most glaring problem with The Following is it’s littered with things that have been done before, and frankly, done better. As those elements started to add up, the show’s universe started to dilute, and my suspension of disbelief gradually faded away. Need examples? I’ll give you six…
1. The loner agent (or sometimes ex-agent) who drinks to numb his pain, and is drawn into a confrontation with a figure from his past. Though Kevin Bacon plays him well, there is very little about Ryan Hardy that is unique or original. This character is a staple of crime and noir stories from just about any medium.
2. The English serial killer manipulating things from his cell. James Purefoy’s prison scenes with Bacon, and various other actors were practically screaming ”The Silence of the Lambs!” The fact that Joe Carroll’s wife is named Claire, a name very similar to Clarice, didn’t help much. In the episode where Claire comes to see Joe in prison, I half expected him to say: “What became of your lamb, Claire?”
3. The kidnapped kid. This one is a staple of just about every genre. I’ll give you that Kyle Catlett, the kid who played Joey Matthews, is a pretty good actor. He gave off enough of the innocent kid vibe without making it annoying. Still, that line he had in episode about Ryan being “one of the good guys!” was downright cringeworthy. But that was a writing issue, not a performance one.
4. Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar Allan Poe’s Wikipedia page should refer to him as “a great American poet, and popular culture’s go-to source for Gothic quotes and references.” I understand that wrapping Carroll’s following in Poe allusions was advantageous because most people have heard of his work. But the idea was tired, not to mention a little too “on the nose.” Joe Carroll is a writer isn’t he? Why could the cult of Joe Carroll be wrapped up in the writings of Joe Carroll? That would make sense, wouldn’t it?
5. Joe Loves Ryan? During the finale, Joe uses a love at first sight metaphor to describe his relationship with Ryan. This motif has been used in the Batman mythos as least as far back as The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. The idea is that Batman and the Joker complete each other on some level, and as such Joker has a perverse “love” for Batman. It’s a cool concept, but it feels forced here.
6. The lighthouse. The big climax between Joe, Ryan and Claire takes place at a lighthouse. Claire actually comments on how predictable it is. Even the characters have seen this stuff before.
The big original twist in this show, or so I thought, was supposed to be the cult element. The question of who’s in it, where they are, how and when they’ll strike, etc. But as the season progressed we found out they all lived together in a big house, as if it were The Real World for murderers. While the cult story did bring us some exciting moments (the chase through the gymnasium being the best), the idea was never tapped to its full potential.
The Emma character irritated me, but t wasn’t necessarily Valorie Curry’s fault. It had more to do with some of her dialogue and her involvement in that weird love triangle with Jacob and Paul. That all seemed like cheap, sleazy fluff to me. Remember that scene where Emma and Paul are in the shower together (because they’re suddenly attracted to each other somehow), and then Jacob comes in and they all…um, hug? Brutal.
I did find Jacob’s story arc interesting though. The idea of a murderous cult member being scared to make his first kill made for good drama. For my money, Jacob’s story should have gone to Emma to get the audience more invested in her. Picture it. Joe convinces a naive young girl to join his cause, and in the process she falls in love with him. Then she winds up having to look after Joey, and the innocence of a young child makes her question what her beloved mentor has taught her. In the end, Joe tells Emma he loves her, and she finally makes her first kill…then the events at the lighthouse happen (I’m trying to stay spoiler free here, but I think you get the idea.). Emma has lost everything, and next season she comes back for revenge.
Curry could have pulled that off beautifully. But instead we got awkward scenes with this girl who is hopelessly devoted to Joe, yet somehow also romantically linked to Jacob, and also attracted to Paul. So much of it was unfocused and loaded with empty lust. Also, that scene where Emma meets Claire was painful.
Joe had too many lieutenants for my taste. For a few episodes we had Charlie, the guy who kidnapped Claire. Later we met Roderick, the cult’s inside man at the police department, who happened to have a game show host haircut. And all the while we also had Emma, Paul and Jacob. Despite her weird awkwardness, Emma was the only one I found myself caring about because the others either came and went too freely, weren’t developed enough, or were part of silly sub plots. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing episodes with self contained sub stories, spotlighting individual cult members. We’d see somebody new each week. That way we could keep things nice and simple, have a fresh threat to deal with every episode, and get to know the commonalities that bind this weird group.
It’s also worth noting that this season Joe either escaped from prison or police custody three times, two of which happened right in front of Ryan. Let’s also not forget Claire was able to get away from the F.B.I. twice so she could pursue Joe on her own. Ryan was able to push the agents quite a bit a lot as well, considering he’s supposed to be retired. He held a press conference on the investigation without their knowledge, and even beats up on suspects. In the finale, he even convinces Mike (Shawn Ashmore’s character) to let him go after Joe, an escaped serial killer whose cronies are responsible for the death of dozens of innocent people, on his own with no back up at all. These folks are pretty inept, considering they’re supposed to be the Federal freakin’ Bureau of Investigation…
One thing I will say for The Following is, despite having writing that was at times downright sloppy, it was very well cast. Awhile back, one of the showrunners said in Entertainment Weekly that Kevin Bacon was cast as the lead so viewers could have a lead they felt a sense of comfort and safety with amidst all the chaos. Bacon provides that, and plays the run down cop role pretty well. Shawn Ashmore was a good choice for the Mike role, as he’s got plenty of nice guy appeal. James Purefoy and Valorie Curry could have been great in their roles, had they not been so uninspired. But all the performers seemed to do the best with what was given to them.
The Following set out to be television’s hottest thriller, and the truly sad thing is that it could have been. But at this point it looks like it’s destined to become a guilty pleasure. I look at it almost the same way I look at Glee. You watch it, and constantly find yourself rolling your eyes at the way the story is put together. But you respect the performers enough that you tune in for their sake. But you know what? I don’t see Kevin Bacon belting out pop covers any time soon. So The Following‘s may not even have that going for it.
Front page image from sheknows.com. Images 1, 2 and 4 from forcesofgeek.com. Image 3 from cartermatt.com. Image 5 from seriable.com. Image 6 from pearlsonastring.com.
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