Don’t Follow The Following, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bacon

If you watched any of the NFL playoffs on Fox over the past couple of weeks, you’ve been bombarded with ads for their new show “The Following,” starring Kevin Bacon as a retired FBI agent temporarily brought back to the field. I initially had no desire to watch this show, from the ads it looked more concerned with shock value than telling a good story. But wouldn’t you know that when I went on Hulu last week to watch my weekly episode of Castle (big Nathan Fillion fan), there was the pilot episode, so, against my better judgment, I watched it, and I watched the second episode this week as well.

It’s not very good. I don’t really know why I watched the second episode, since I wasn’t very impressed with the first one. I’ll probably watch the third episode next week.

But again, I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because I’m curious as to what fresh heights of absurdity the show will reach in the coming weeks.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a retired FBI agent recalled to duty after the escape of Joe Carroll, an infamous serial killer. Ryan was the man who caught Carroll however many years ago, and he knows him better than anyone. Carroll has developed something of an obsession with Ryan, so the feds of course track Ryan down to help find Carroll. Ryan wrote a book about Carroll while he was in prison, and is now a drunk blah blah blah.

I’m sorry, I just lost interest in summarizing the plot. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Every single element of this show’s plot has been done a million times before, and done better nine times out of ten.

Charismatic, calculating serial killer? Check.

Convoluted romantic entanglements? Check.

Houses with weird crap written all over the walls and bodies buried behind said walls? Check.

Lots of interrogation scenes that try really hard to be intense and mostly fail? Check.

Jaded, alcoholic ex-FBI guy brought back to track down the nutbag he caught because he knows him better than anyone else et cetera et cetera et cetera? Check, Check, Check.

It almost seems like the writers realize how clichéd all of this is, since they add a new wrinkle that they hope will differentiate the show from the many, many other films, books, TV shows etc. that it rips off. Serial killer Joe Carroll is a Charles Manson-like cult figure, who has inspired all kinds of fellow whack-jobs to join his demented cause. This is the “Following” of the title, but what it really amounts to is spectacularly lazy and cheap storytelling, since ANYONE COULD BE EVIL AT ANY TIME.

Take the first episode: the prison guard is evil, the friendly gay neighbors of Carroll’s escaped last victim are evil (and not gay…well, maybe one of them is), and the nanny of Joe’s son is evil. This, to me, feels incredibly lazy, since you can pretty much make someone evil whenever you want to in order to attempt to surprise people, logic be damned. It’s another cliché as well, since SO-AND-SO WAS ACTUALLY EVIL ALL ALONG has also been done before dozens of times.

It also completely muddles the plot, since whenever the show randomly makes someone evil, they spend a lot of time trying to explain why they’re evil. Much of the second episode was composed of showing the background for the evil nanny, who isn’t a very compelling character and is hard to care about in the first place. I really don’t care about why she’s evil. Another problem is that most of these explanations as to why people are randomly evil are pretty much going to have to turn out to be mostly the same anyway: they were seduced in one way or another by the smooth-talking, charismatic Joe, and that’s mostly it.

And speaking of Joe, man, what an amalgamation of clichés. He’s handsome and charismatic and smart and all that, and of course he’s also completely batshit crazy. Hannibal Lecter, anyone? He’s also a former English professor who’s obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe, and there are all kinds of ridiculous Poe references. When Ryan and his pals walk into the aforementioned house with crazy stuff written on the walls and NEVERMORE scrawled all over the place and they promptly, randomly find the body of the evil nanny’s dead mother in the wall, Ryan mumbles, “Classic Poe.” Um, okay.

Evil Joe is played by James Purefoy, a talented British actor I’ve liked in films I’ve seen him in, and he does what he can with what he’s given, which here isn’t very much. Maybe I’m being too harsh on this show based on just two episodes, but so far we haven’t really seen much to show why or how he could inspire such fanatical devotion in people. There are a lot of interrogation scenes between Joe and Ryan that all try to recapture the terrifying, magical intensity of the famous interrogation scene in The Dark Knight, and all of them fail. The acting is generally decent, though Bacon always seems a bit flat to me. But I’ve never been a member (or follower, if you will) of the Church of Bacon so maybe I’m biased.

The show also has an annoying tendency to over-rely on flashbacks to tell the story. There’s an annoyingly-placed flashback whenever the show feels like it needs to explain something, which distracts from the main plot and provides backstory that isn’t even very interesting in the first place. Ryan had an affair with Joe’s hot wife. Yawn. The evil nanny killed her mother. Boring. Joe is all charismatic and whatever. Is there something else on?

There’s also an inordinate amount of gruesome violence. I’m not usually one to talk about violence on television (my two favorite shows are Spartacus and The Walking Dead, for crying out loud, probably two of the goriest television programs of all time), but to me the violence in The Following feels designed to shock more than anything else. Bloody murder scenes, eyes gouged out, decaying corpses, people set on fire…it really seems like Fox is trying to show how cool and hip they are by showing all of this, but it really doesn’t have any impact past the initial shock. The fact that much of the violence is directed towards women provides an additionally sour taste.

The Following is a mess of clichés, lazy plotting, and occasional outbursts of graphic violence. So why am I watching it? I don’t really know. I suppose part of me is curious to see how all of this nonsense plays out, and there’s always the (admittedly slim) chance that the show will eventually manage to pull its head out of its ass, but for now I’m in just to see how dumb things will get. To give you an example, the second episode ends with a man dressed in a stupid-looking Poe mask walking up to a random dude in public and lighting him on fire, then walking away as nobody tries to stop him. I can’t wait to see how this ties in to evil Joe’s master plan.

I read a comment online on a review about this show that summed up its logic thusly: “2+2 =5. OMG IN THE HOUSE!!!” That about sums it up.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie (or TV show) to watch.

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