Why would anyone want to follow The Following? The serial killer thriller (yes, just what TV needs: more visits to Ripper Street, more sadistic Criminal Minds) wears its repulsiveness on its sleeve the way The Ice Pick Lady wore lines of Edgar Allan Poe on her milky flesh for all the world to see. That much-advertised image should have been sufficient notice to anyone bothered by sensationalistic violence and sexual exploitation to stay away. The premise of the show – a charismatic egghead psycho with a secret society of sycophants who execute his bidding (and/or just execute people) – is strikingly similar to what The Mentalist has been doing (quite well) for several years with its ongoing Red John storyline. The Following would seem easy to resist if you’re unmoved by the considerable charms of Kevin Bacon and appalled by clichés, derivativeness, and, like, evil and stuff.
I am not one of those people. The series premiere left me wanting more of this Silence of the Lambs for Generation Hashtag. It was a well-acted, well-directed, often very scary hour of television, and the odious elements were mitigated by a few interesting ideas and an outrageous implausibility that I found enjoyable. Like the Grand Guignol of American Horror Story, The Following serves heady horror with over-the-top relish and nightmare logic plot turns. The subtext: Don’t take this too seriously. It’s a problematic strategy, but it often works for me.
I can identify the moment when The Following captured my imagination. It came at the end, when James Purefoy’s diabolical deviant Joe Carroll could have easily gotten away from Kevin Bacon’s haunted ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy… but instead allowed himself to be captured, although not before activating a legion of lunatics made in his image to start slashing up the country… among other sinister things. The Following isn’t an epic cat-chases-mouse thriller, which is what I was expecting. It’s a cat-forced-to-play-with-mouse-to-catch-baby-mice thriller, set in an America made madly Gothic by a malevolent man who fancies himself a master storyteller with important things to say. Whether that tale aspires to produce deep (if cracked) meaning or just lurid kicks is part of the point. I think. Regardless: Carroll – a former literature professor and artsy-fartsy failed novelist who views his crimes as works of art –strikes me as a very interesting guy with a lot on his mind about our culture. The pilot left me thinking this: During the eight years of his incarceration, Carroll used the Internet to reach out into the world to create a living puzzle narrative, stage-managed and enacted by obsessive fans who have been warped by their fascination with human darkness. Now, Hardy must assay and solve this interactive experience, relying on the most unreliable of narrators, Carroll himself, for guidance. In other words: An open-ended game of Dungeons & Dragons, with Carroll functioning as Dungeon Master and Hardy as player.
Or, put another way, Carroll is the showrunner, and Hardy is us, the viewer. The Following comes to us from Kevin Williamson, whose brilliant screenplay for Scream turned genre deconstruction into entertainment and paved the way for an era of self-referencing, audience-implicating horror like Funny Games, Saw, American Horror Story, and the upcoming drama Cult on The CW. While The Following is a heavier, grimmer piece of work than Scream, it possess enough self-awareness to suggest that it, too, aspires to be a subversive commentary on crimetime pop and serial killer thrills, which is definitely having a moment this TV season. Coming soon: NBC’s Hannibal, A&E’s Bates Motel. Joe Carroll’s America, now teeming with serial killers, is a reflection of the TV landscape, with its growing population of mass murderers. As someone who has both produced such stuff and routinely consumes it, I submit to the critique. Why would anyone want to follow The Following? Perhaps that’s exactly the point. But we shall see.
The Following gets rolling quickly. We watched Joe Carroll – disguised as a security guard – escape a maximum security prison with seemingly ridiculous ease, leaving a trail a dead jailers behind him. This brief but effectively creepy scene was bracketed by two interesting musical cues: A guitar riff lifted from Marilyn Manson’s menacing goth rock cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” and the enchanting Patsy Cline singing “Sweet Dreams (Of You).” And so The Raven leaves the cage, ready to cast his sinister shade across the land.
The dream-themed song choices – in a show about a serial killer who collects eyeballs for trophies and serves as a muse to aspiring serial killers – made me wonder if Kevin Williamson was familiar with The Corinthian, a character from Neil Gaiman’s erudite dark fantasy comic book saga, Sandman. The Corinthian was a seductive living nightmare created by Morpheus the Dream Lord, who took the form of… a serial killer who collected (and ate) the eyeballs of his victims and served as the muse to other serial killers. In the storyline “A Doll’s House,” The Corinthian escaped Dream’s domain, killed his way across America, and made his way to a serial killer convention where he was ultimately caught and destroyed by Morpheus. He was later revived – this time, as a hero.
To Brooklyn, where Ryan Hardy awoke with a pounding hangover and to the urgent bleating of his iPhone. He rehydrated with a bottle of water, then clicked on the TV. On every channel: Breaking news of Carroll’s escape. The phone rang again, and this time, he quickly answered. His old bosses at the FBI – the ones who forced him out a couple years earlier for reasons TBD – wanted him to come back and help re-capture Carroll. Hardy was reluctant to get back in the game. His last battle with Carroll left him physically damaged (he got stabbed in the heart, requiring a pacemaker that bulges from his chest) and emotionally damaged, too. See: The obligatory haunted cop drinking problem. He went, anyway, nudged by heroism, and a desire to preserve the legacy of meaning he achieved by bringing Carroll to justice: Hardy had thwarted Carroll’s last attempt at murder, saving the life of a college student named Sarah Fuller, who had since gone on to become a successful doctor. Something in Hardy’s gut told him Carroll aimed to destroy that happily ever after. He packed a bag and poured a to-go bottle Vodka, and with that, our literally broken-hearted hero, was flying by crow-black chopper back into the heart of darkness.
The field agents assigned to Hardy – Troy Reilly, Jennifer Mason – greeted him at Carroll’s prison with suspicion and resented his presence. He had a reputation rich with even more hero cop cliches. He didn’t “play well with others.” He got canned because he became obsessed with the Carroll case and “lost it.” Hardy didn’t do much to make a good first impression. He reeked of ‘I don’t want to be here’ surliness. In his defense, the sick spectacle of security guard bloodbath was something of a buzz kill for him. Welcome back to the horror show, kiddo.
NEXT: Professor Carroll’s Psycho Syllabus