The pilot for The Following is notable for a few reasons, some of them very likely to please its parent network Fox. Kevin Bacon premieres in a starring role on the small screen, the violence levels are ratcheted up to levels often seen on “serious” cable dramas, and the show is intermittently capable of conjuring a palpable sense of paranoia.
However, the thing I noticed most about The Following’s premiere was how little of it was about the title attraction.
In this highly-touted midseason show (to accommodate its star’s film career, each season will have a shortened episode run), Bacon plays the stock “burnt-out former Fed with demons of his own” Ryan Hardy, now a very minor celebrity for his committed investigation into and takedown of Dr. Joseph Carroll (James Purefoy). Carroll was a Romantic-obsessed literature professor and the serial killer of several young women in the early 2000s. The twist? Carroll’s passionate, magnetic personality (and covert use of a prison computer) has created an online “following” of serial killer imitators, each a groupie ready to help Carroll commit crimes with panache and spectacle.
The problem with this idea is that the show’s pilot episode, otherwise known as the episode in which a show’s status quo should be established , features very little of the titular following and functions mostly as prologue. In fact, Carroll says as much to Hardy at the end of the pilot, which focuses on Carroll’s escape from prison and its subsequent pulling of Hardy back into the game (a few following members show up, but only one makes a real impression). You know the most memorable scenes from the series’s ubiquitous ads, the ones with the Edgar Allan Poe mask or the implication that Carroll’s cult of personality is piling up victims faster than law enforcement can handle? None of that’s in the first episode.
What is in the first episode is fairly rote, much more like a typical network crime drama than Fox would be willing to admit. There’s one dogged man who bickers with his by-the-books coworkers, a super-genius criminal whose seeming omniscience is rarely explained, and Hollywood’s typical assumption that people on the Internet can do anything (for an episode of television that almost never shows anyone on the Internet, the show’s characters sure talk a lot about blogs and websites and viruses). Though some of the material is competently-acted, the hour was strangely boring for a show full of murders.
The other really notable thing about The Following – and it’s a factor Fox is obviously banking on – is the show’s violence quotient, which is nothing too gory but definitely several shades more explicit than what you’d typically see in a primetime network drama. When bragging about the show’s cable-ready content, however, The Following’s creators forgot that the best uses of violence in art are those that create meaning, that cause you to think or to be profoundly affected by an emotion other than shock.
There’s plenty of bodies in The Following’s first hour, but the only people getting anything out of them are the show’s writers, who seem to be almost as gleeful in their fake bloodshed as Carroll is about his “real” murders. Two moments of violence in particular (one in a following member’s garage and the other in the episode’s climax) are so nihilistic as to make you wonder who the scenes are for and what reaction they were supposed to elicit. Is revulsion the final goal here? If so, cable is still beating The Following while coming up with more affecting material to boot.
Oddly enough, the pilot’s key flaw is what may get me to come back for a second episode. By not focusing on what is ostensibly its key narrative hook, The Following has failed to inform me as to whether it can live up to the promise of its premise. I may give it another chance, but I’m not getting my hopes up.