TV Review: The Following

E: If you had asked me last week, I’d have told you that Kevin Bacon’s first foray into television told the story of an FBI agent hunting for a serial killer.  Then I watched it. It was stylish, it was creepy, it was derivative, but in the end the thing that excited me about The Following was my complete misunderstanding of the title.

It turns out, you see, that the story isn’t about Bacon’s Ryan Hardy following the killer (played by the smart and creepy James Purefoy) who’s just escaped from prison .  Hardy caught murderous “literature” professor Joe Carroll in the first place, you see, so he’s called back in to consult during the manhunt.  Quickly we see that not only is he an expert on the subject, but that most of those victimized by Carroll, chiefly his ex-wife and the victim he’d failed to kill, share a deep bond with Hardy and will only speak to him.  He’s venerated by a young expert (Mike Weston, played by a puppyish Shawn Ashmore), but mistrusted and resented by most of the agents in charge.

But overcoming their prejudices to work together and catch a killer?  Uniting to protect ex-wife Claire Matthews, son Joey, former student (and victim and testifying witness) turned doctor, Maggie Grace’s Sarah Fuller? No, that’s not the story.

The story, it turns out,  revolves around a cult grown up around this serial killer, and the surprising legions doing his bidding.  And that’s not a story I’ve seen before.  So many elements here lack that thrill; we’ve seen the hardened, haunted alcoholic former investigator, drawn back in to his greatest case.  He’s slept with the killer’s wife?  Duh.  He’s the only competent person in the room?  Yawn.  The killer who stages his murders with literary references?  Yup, been there.  One who steals his victim’s eyes?  If I hadn’t read The Alienist, maybe.  A killer fixed on the investigator who caught him, wanting to compete in a battle of wits?  Of course.  Maybe that’s a problem with enjoying mysteries; after a while, it’s hard to surprise.  But this concept of Carroll’s followers did surprise me.

Now, some of you may have seen this plot, but this is something I haven’t seen on this scale, and it’s likely due to a marketing failure that I came to a shocked realization at the end of the show about just who was following whom.  The very idea of unknown lieutenants willing murder themselves to play a part in his game (the woman with Poe’s words written on her body and an ice pick in her eye?  very arresting image, at any rate), or men willing to live as lovers for three years so they could gain Sarah Fuller’s trust?  Absolutely terrifying, and completely unexpected. When Sarah was snatched despite police and FBI protection, I thought “oh no, Carroll killed her sweet gay neighbors!” until we made it all the way through their house without finding their bodies and I understood that they were the ones who had taken her.  Young Joey moved as a pawn in the game by a pixie haired young babysitter similarly planted in Claire’s life?  She’s the competent and evil version of Clarice from Sleepless in Seattle; at that point I knew what to expect, but still found it horrifying.

If I’d read more about the show before the premier, I might have realized that poor Maggie Grace would be killed off once again.  As it happened, however, her death shocked and upset me.  I can see Carroll’s idea of using Sarah’s death to motivate Ryan in their upcoming contest of wits.  I wanted to rail at Hardy for rushing out of Sarah’s house without any backup (leaving him vulnerable to Carroll once again), but on the other hand, who does he trust?  After figuring out that the neighbors had been cultivating Sarah for three years, any cop at the scene could have been an equally untrustworthy ally.  And that’s the best aspect of the show moving forward; with this sort of adversary, and with so much advance planning, how do you determine who you can rely on?  Hardy has spent the last 8 years self-flagellating; Carroll planned.

Because that’s what I do, I can quibble with some details of the show.  I’m not sure the scenes of Carroll’s original crimes really live up to the reputation the show has set him. As with so many characters in a medium which strives to be “aspirational” I can’t fathom how Claire Matthews could pay for her opulent mansion.  Sales of her ex-husband’s novel?  Surely not.  That’s not English professor pay, at any rate.  Sarah’s corpse was much blonder than her living counterpart, taking me out of the moment,  allowing me to hope that it might not really be her.  I don’t know how old the actor is, but Joe and Claire’s son Joey does not look or act like a 9 or 10 year old (and this is an area where I can speak to with some certainty).   Is Carroll really a month away from execution? Will he trade knowledge of his minions plans for his life?  What does that mean about the show’s timeline, and whether it will last for more than a single season?

Of course the largest issue remains the cliched plot elements.  We’ll see if Bacon, dry and spare to the point of dessication, can duplicate his wife’s success as a television detective, and whether his character expands from the stereotype we saw initially.  Ashmore’s character seems too genial for his budding profession as a profiler, and too fawning for someone who initially called Hardy out; I wouldn’t be surprised if he either ends up a corpse or (more likely) one of Carroll’s disciples implanted within the investigation.  Still, there are enough surprising elements – and Bacon generally intrigues me enough – for me to want to keep going.  I’m curious to see where the season takes us; I like the idea of a short season, allowing producers to provide a more intense and more tight, thoughtful story.   I’m willing to follow this story to see where it, and Purefoy’s Carroll, leads.

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