"The Following" Review: Like Being Spoonfed with a Pick-Axe
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"The Following" Review: Like Being Spoonfed with a Pick-Axe

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | January 23, 2013 | Comments ()


I have a sneaking suspicion that, based on the premiere's ratings (10.3 million in the 18-49 demo) and the smattering of raves I've seen on Facebook and in comments sections, that The Following may be another Revolution: Inexplicably popular with audiences, but not so much with critics. I wanted to break with the critics; in fact, I wanted to like The Following so much that I screened the premiere twice to make sure that I wasn't missing something. Unfortunately, the second viewing only hardened by opinion: The show is too on the nose, too obvious, and too heavy handed. It beats you over the head with conclusions, and introduces the kind of serial killer only found in terrible mass-market paperback fiction.

Granted, the cast is impressive. Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent badly injured after he is knived while apprehending a literature professor turned serial killer Joe Caroll (James Purefoy). A retired Hardy is called back into service as a "consultant" years later when Hardy escapes from prison to finish what he'd started, namely killing a former student (Maggie Grace) who survived his final attack after he was shot by Hardy.

Hardy is reluctant, of course, because the network television manual insists that former FBI agents called back into service are reluctant, but ultimately consumed by their cases. It doesn't help that he has a romantic history with Joe Caroll's wife, Claire (Natalie Zea, "Justified").

Using his "knowledge" of Carroll's methods, along with the assistance of Claire, Hardy eventually does track down Carroll and arrests him again, although this time, Carrol wants to be apprehended. In the years that he was in prison facing execution, he was able to somehow manufacture a Manson-like cult of Joe Carroll wannabe serial killers, each of whom will go on their own killing spree in service of Carrol's next great literary murder adventure, and each of whom Hardy will be tasked with stopping, setting up the series' all too predicable serial-killer-of-the-week premise.

The problems with The Following are not the performances: Bacon is sturdy, as ever, and Purefoy is deliciously evil. Nor is it the much-talked-about uber-violence. The violence is not unusual for a network police procedural but for the fact that the high body count means there's a higher frequency of grisly murder sequences.

The problem is in the writing, specifically the literary gimmick at the center of the serial killing. It's written and shot so obviously that any 11 year old could pick up on the clues. Everything screams: LOOK. HERE'S A CLUE. For instance, there's a poster of a lighthouse presented in Joe Carroll's cell that the camera lingers on, all but shouting in your face: YOU WILL FIND HIM IN THIS LIGHTHOUSE. GO TO HERE. He may as well have left a preprogrammed GPS device with directions to his location and a sticky note that says, "SERIAL KILLER HERE."

The literary references are even more painfully unsubtle. In the premiere, Carroll's killings are inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and there's nothing vague about it. One woman covered in tattoos of Poe's prose stabs herself in the eye with an ice pick, and one of Carroll's victims has her eyeballs removed from their sockets. Why? Because "the eyes are the window to the soul." Ugh.

More annoying is the fact that, in one scene, Carroll leaves a huge message scrawled in blood on a wall -- NEVERMORE -- and it takes Hardy a full 90 seconds to draw the obvious conclusion: "Oh, 'Nevermore,' in case it isn't obvious to everyone at the murder scene, and every single viewer watching from home, is a reference to Poe!" Really? Thanks for connecting those dots for us for us, Hardy, although I might have been able to make that connection myself had you not knocked me unconscious by BEATING ME OVER THE HEAD with the clue.

I'm not ruling out the possibility that "The Following" could improve. The cast is solid, and there is a modicum of promise in the premise. However, this is network television, where simple math is not only calculated for us, the answers are stamped on our foreheads. In a television landscape with thought-provoking dramas and compelling mysteries like Sherlock and even Elementary (which I understand has gotten considerably better since the pilot), we don't need another unchallenging, unthinking Encyclopedia Brown procedural like The Following.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Buck Forty

    It doesn’t help that he has a romantic history with Joe Caroll’s wife, Claire

    It hasn't screened here yet, so I haven't seen it yet, but I'm guessing already that if Hardy and Claire had a romantic history it was engineered by Caroll because he's that much of an evil genius. All will be revealed at the series' finale.

  • Three_nineteen

    Hey - do not dis Encyclopedia Brown. He may not be up to your high standards as a detective, but I bet he knows that "knived" is not a word.

  • BlackRabbit

    So he assembled this evil group of killers while he was in college? I'm waiting for the flashback where he tries to seduce one of them while they're stoned. And doesn't Bacon run around without a gun for like 1/2 the show?

  • ,

    Mrs. , and I had been out beering it up before this, so even though she's a big Kevin Bacon fan, she passed out about five minutes in. The next morning I was trying to explain to her why the thing was cliche'd as hell and dumber than mud and I kept confusing myself on the plot. Things I thought had happened I wasn't sure happened, and I couldn't quite understand my own confusion.

    Then I realized I was mixing it up with the escaped-killer-genius plot from "Bones," which was on right before and which I watch for the attractive women (Emily is the hot Deschanel, but probably only the third-best-looking woman on the show), not a whit for the plots, which tend to be generic and stupid.

    And if I can confuse "The Following" with a "Bones" plot, well, that doesn't speak well for the quality of "The Following," does it?

    It gets one more week -- axe poised above the chopping block.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Kevin Bacon doesn't talk like a robot though, does he?

  • ,

    No, but he didn't do a cute geek dance over the credits at the end either.

  • Buck Forty

    It's implied. He did Footloose.

  • duckandcover

    Are you fucking kidding me with this show? Stellar cast or not, the premise is the same exact one from Thomas Harris' Red Dragon.

  • thenchonto

    I wanted so badly for this to not suck. So so badly. Because... literature and serial killing and Kevin Bacon. But...

    1) For the hundredth time: most college English classes look nothing like Dead Poet's Society gone sleazy, and when they do, the professor leading them is not "beloved". He or she is avoided if possible by students and bitchily gossiped about by every other professor in the department save for those too out-of-the-loop or taken by the seductive allure of Victorian-era manners. Yeah, it's true said horny motivator profs will still have some hangers-on, but they will be few in numbers, obnoxious, dumb, and, probably go on to work in network television, profligating this eye-gougingly tired trope for the drooling procedural-hungry masses. College wasn't like that for everyone else, you hackity hack hack dipshits.

    2) Along with everyone else, I'm still reeling like a NFL lineman on Monday morning from so many clue hits. Unlike all of you followers of Blue, however, I'm recovering with the nuanced subtlety of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.

    3) No one warned me I should have my water bottle of vodka prepped and half-consumed ahead of time for maximum enjoyment. I chose to see intro-to-alcoholism scene as more of a clue to proper viewing than as obvious character painting, because it was already far enough into the episode that my absurdly extreme denial had kicked into high gear (it was quickly replaced by disappointment and booze).

    4) Fuckin' A! I had a debate with some people in high school over whether Poe actually wrote "The Lighthouse" or whether it was some sort of fake or mis-attribution. I was soooo right. Take that, doubters of Honors English 3&4! In two years, I'm going to school your all-knowing asses at the next reunion. You may have successful children, but I live in a nicer climate and have a way more expansive knowledge of trivia picked up purely out of spite. So there.

  • Torgotronic

    Not impressed; just too many echoes of "Red Dragon" (talented but damaged former FBI agent called back to again catch the monster that nearly kiled him years before). Thomas Harris' lawyers may have a case. On the "Homeland" scale of good writing for television ("Homeland" is a ten), this is a 3 at best.

  • duckandcover

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of Red Dragon.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I like Elementary better than Sherlock. Blasphemy?

  • Quatermain

    Not at all. I'm right there with you.

  • Wapshin

    When do we get the real deal with Mads and Hannibal?

  • Slash

    I watched it. It was unimpressive. Serial killers are boring, unless they're written by Ryan Murphy.

  • Puke. Please spare us even more serial killer porn.

  • Troyliss

    I caught a bit of it before I had to leave the house. The part that got me was the younger FBI guy briefing the agents on Carroll. Hardy upstages him and shows how FBI kid has Carroll's motivations all wrong. Then the young guy acts all star-struck and talks about how he wrote a paper on Carroll using Hardy's book as a reference. Really?!? You used the book as a reference and STILL didn't understand what Hardy learned about Carroll? Either our whiz-kid is a moron or Hardy's book sucked.

  • alev1

    Bingo!!! That was what bothered me the most. Although Nevermore was pretty darn annoying.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I thought it was pretty pedestrian, right until the end, when Purefoy's character started talking about his "story". It adds a nice meta level to the show. I will watch the next episode to see how it goes.

  • KatSings

    I agree with all of this. I think there is potential, and I could watch Purefoy menace ALL DAY - he is delicious. If it gets a little more subtle (PLEASE lose the heart beating thing) and relies more on the performances, it could end up good.

    Also - I'm not going to pretend to be all that well versed in prison systems and access to the internet. But it struck me as insane that ONE DUDE (Hardy) is the only person to go "hey, access to the server at the library for a dude who is smart means he probably was accessing the whole internet." And if that premise fails, the whole set up is bullshit. I can get past it if the show ends up good enough, but it made me crazy.

  • Guest

    Sad. I had hopes for this one the moment I saw the preview over which an excellent reading of "The Raven" was intoned. Gave me chills.

    Surely, SURELY, there's some in-your-face, literary-allusion reason why the lead cop is named Hardy (as in, Thomas Hardy?), but not having seen this, I'm not going to attempt the connection. Only guess, blind, is: demi-urge world? Is that giving the showrunners too much credit? It fits, though.

  • Wembley

    Or Hardy Boys. Maybe he has a brother. A maverick cop from Chicago/New York/LA....

  • Aeryn

    Loved the pilot. Figured they went overboard on the Poe stuff early as an education of some people there aren't familiar with his works. The Nevermore thing seemed overboard, but chalked it up to leading the way for Bacon's character to go off and over-board. Just made FBI look really stupid for not moving ahead and really getting it with the Poe stuff. I did enjoy it. I think it was being over obvious as it is being a pilot and wanting to drag a lot of people in. I was surprised that Carroll surrendered. I had been trying to avoid any info ahead of time about the show. It makes sense he surrendered, but didn't they say at the first of it that he was slated to be executed on the 12th of the very next month? Guess he is thinking this will strengthen his case for his appeal, since he is representing himself. I only hope that the show doesn't end up being over obvious and easy to figure out. The gay neighbor thing surprised me and I liked that.. the prision guard, way too obvious and oh dear lord, the puppy video...... heart breaking

  • Yes, the dogs. Horrible. But again, they beat us over the head with the other detective (special agent?) who said, I'll hurt anyone that kills a dog. As if everyone watching wasn't thinking THE EXACT SAME THING.

  • nosio

    For me it was the constantly pounding heartbeat sound every time Bacon exerted himself that really got to me. "Get it? He has a defective heart and a pacemaker! Also: The Telltale Heart!" You could practically hear the writers high fiving each other every time the noise started up.

  • Kballs

    Jesus, seriously? Poe superfans are the fucking worst.

  • KatSings


  • NateMan

    I enjoyed it, despite the Nevermore problem, which was of course absurd. My biggest problem with it was the notion of a serial killer without a listed middle name.

  • Kballs


  • "Danger"

  • "Wayne".

  • L.O.V.E.

    I will watch this show ... nevermore.

  • TheAggroCraig


  • poopnado

    This sounds like that amazing mystery show I watched in high school...it had a dog...a blue dog I think. There was a teenager with some arrested development issues. Man, those clues were obvious. But I kept watching because of the amazing dance routines.

  • TheAggroCraig

    My friends made a ridiculous video film in high school about Blue's Clues. Except it was a murder mystery they called "Crimson Clues". It makes at least as much sense as "The Following". I promise I'm not getting paid to plug this.

  • NateMan

    Don't even joke about Blue's Clues. My daughter gets to watch 1 show every day, before bath, and she picks either this or Super Why. I'm about to take out Steve with a chainsaw.

  • Kballs

    You're still on Steve? At least mix in some Joe episodes so you don't go mad.

  • InternetMagpie

    I LOVE Steve and will defend him forever. Sorry, Joe, you suck.

  • marya

    I love Steve, too! Oh, dreamy, dreamy Steve. The perfect Saturday morning companion when I was in my early 20s. He did all the work to find those clues, while I laid on the couch, hungover, gingerly sipping black coffee, too weak to tolerate the more intense drama of Saved By the Bell: The College Years. Steve, where are you now? I miss your striped polo and your frantic pantomiming.

  • I love Steve and his everloving folicular attempts to mask the ravages of early-onset hair loss.

  • poopnado

    Well just tell me--do they still do the mail time dance? I really do like that one.

  • Kballs

    We just got a letter
    We just got a letter
    We just got a letter
    Wonder who it's from?


  • NateMan

    I dunno, we're still in Season 2, so right now the answer is yes.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Super Why is much easier on the sanity than Special Agent Oso.

    Three simple steps to jumping off a bridge:
    One! Watch Special Agent Oso
    Two! Drive to nearest bridge
    Three! Jump off bridge.

  • Lillie

    Steve is long gone. Off to college or to play in a rock band or something. Joe and his amazing eyebrows replaced him years ago when my teenager was still a toddler. Now my two year old is obsessed. It never ends.

  • Mrs. Julien

    HEY! You know what? You're really smart!

  • marya

    I have to say, I LOVE the fact that so many Pajibans have strong opinions about Blue's Clues. Let's print Team Joe/Team Steve t-shirts. I'll go start a tumblr account - someone make the gifs.

  • Melanie

    This is hilarious, because I had the exact same reaction, particularly to the Nevermore bit. I'm to be expected to believe that it took the brilliant FBI agents that long to understand that Nevermore is a Poe reference? It was really overall quite a terrible pilot, but somehow I am intrigued enough by the setup that I plan to check it out again. They need to drop this whole Poe nonsense right quick, though, because it feels so forced and so trite, it nearly made me sprain my eyeballs rolling them too hard.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    You and Michelle Obama both, boo.

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