Because it is the first new series to premiere containing substantial gore since the killings in Newtown, CT, The Following has taken an unfair amount of criticism for depictions of violence on television. As always with pop culture, drawing direct lines to entertainment that “glorifies” or even inspires violence is a vexed proposition. The Following is certainly no more violent than, say, American Horror Story: Asylum, which is wrapping up what’s turned out to be a very artful season this week, or Criminal Minds, which has long been drearily cynical.
Creator-producer-writer Kevin Williamson played horror for giggles in Scream, but the horrors of a mass murderer get a grim, humorless treatment in The Following. It’s a series that makes the most of the gaunt face of star Kevin Bacon. Bacon, whose previous TV acting consisted mostly of pre-stardom soap opera roles, was ripe for a television series: In his early 50s, he’s got the trim, wiry body of someone at least a decade younger. He’s become the Iggy Pop of soulful acting.
As former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, Bacon plays a man whose life was pretty much ruined by his successful pursuit of Joe Carroll, a charismatic serial killer plays by James Purefoy. At the start of the show, Hardy is revealed as a lonely wraith who subsists on vodka and regret; he’s pulled back into FBI action and forced to confront Carroll again. Although confined to prison, Carroll is so persuasive, he all but sends out zapping brain-commands to zealous fans – the following of the title – who commit crimes (murders, kidnapping) as acts of devotion.
In future episodes, The Following will make direct references to Carroll’s crew as being similar to the kill-crazies who followed Charles Manson’s bug-eyed, Southern California, Beach-Boys-and-Beatles-themed criminal mind. And Manson provides a perfect argument for what I argued in the first paragraph: Who could have thought that the Fab Four’s “Helter Skelter” might have been on Manson and his dreafull little piggies’ pea-brains when he mind-controlled the Tate-LaBianco murders?
The weakest element of The Following is the idea that Carroll was a spectacularly successful college professor who held his classes spellbound with lectures about Thoreau, Emerson, and most crucially, Edgar Allan Poe. His disciples leave Poe clues at the scenes of their crimes, such as scrawling the word “Nevermore” in blood on a wall, just so Ryan can yell triumphantly, “’The Raven’!” The flashbacks to Carroll’s classroom talks barely rise about high-school level discourse, and the show makes it seem as though no one except Carroll, his adepts, and Ryan have ever heard of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Black Cat.”
The Following is less an argument for less violence on television than an argument against tenure.
But the strongest elements of The Following override this flaw. Both Bacon and Purefoy are so intensely earnest, the show quickly supercedes its patent Silence of the Lambs set-up. And Bacon has good chemistry with Natalie Zea as Carroll’s ex-wife, Ryan’s ex-lover, and mother of a son kidnapped by a trio Carroll’s followers. I still wish Zea had remained on Justified, but…
Anyway, it’s the moments that focus on Carroll’s criminal cult that give the series its real power. Those wide-eyed adepts are genuinely spooky. Bacon has told EW that one of his favorite TV shows was 24, and The Following has a similar tick-tock timed-suspense aspect to its let’s get the kidnapper plot.
But Ryan Hardy is no Jack Bauer. He’s an aspiring alcoholic with a pacemaker – a tell-tale heart-warmer of a guy who tries to come on cold and hostile. He doesn’t fool us for a moment, which is why we end up caring about this screwed-up hero and his mission to keep us both safe from and interested in what would otherwise be merely the umpteenth serial-killer in pop culture.