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.