Here’s what you need to know: Fox’s The Following follows Kevin Bacon as retired FBI agent Ryan Hardy, called back to duty to pursue escaped (more than once) serial killer James Purefoy, and his cadre of homicidal followers who have formed a cult based around the writings of Edgar Allen Poe (sorta).
Also, it’s terrible. In almost every conceivable way. But punishment gluttons Al Schwartz and Justin Waddell have been unable to miss a single episode of this ongoing creative trainwreck/ratings hit. Whilst steeling ourselves for tonight’s STUNNING SEASON FINALE, we decided to make like Laura Dern in Jurassic Park and sift through the mound to try to determine where this ship went off course and if there is any hope of righting it.
“Did he tell you about his Deathcurse?”
- ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM SHOW
AL: Let’s start with Ryan Hardy. He’s our hero, and I hate him more than a little bit. He’s not charming, he’s not funny, he’s not empathetic with either victims or co-workers, he’s not actually good at his job (like, at all), but somehow acts like that’s everyone else’s fault. Because it’s not like FBI bureaucracy has screwed up any of his great plans for catching Joe; it’s his chronic inability to take backup with him that has caused most of the trainwrecks that have ensued any time he steps out of the computer room.
We all like Kevin Bacon. But the season is basically over; shouldn’t the protagonist have displayed some sort of sympathetic trait by now?
JUSTIN: Kevin Bacon is a picky actor – at least it seems that way. If you look at his filmography, he seems like somene who has really thought deeply about the roles he takes. So, I imagine, it must be hell to be stuck in the role of Ryan Hardy. It’s an awful show, for sure. But it also hasn’t given Bacon much to do other than be overconfident for no reason and grab a bottle every now and again to remind us that he has a drinking problem. Oh, and to breathe hard every once in a while to remind us that he has a damaged heart.
Leading into the final, it’s hard to understand anything presented by the show. You have to just accept that Joe Carroll has a mysterious hold over people. We haven’t seen how he is effortlessly able to brainwash his loyal subjects. In place of a grand plan, he sacrifices (and some times just plain kills) these folks in the pursuit of annoying Hardy or having a romantic dinner with his ex-wife. Finally, in the penultimate show, there was a character that wondered what it all meant (the confoundingly sympathetic Jacob Wells). But he was responding to the danger of the Carroll’s plan, not the actual plan – which he seemed cool enough with. Anyway, he is inevitably dispatched. So, not to worry, the Carroll ranks have been righted! So, where does this leave us? With Carroll on a boat with his ex-wife and one of Hardy’s partners (cult expert/idiot Debra Parker) buried alive in coffin. Both of these women could potentially be saved, but would stand a better chance if Hardy’s crew wasn’t so unable to understand the idea of not going off alone in the pursuit of could-be-anybody, suicidally-fanatical bad guys.
“He’s speaking to people through Gothic Romanticism!” – ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM THE SHOW
AL; You’ve hit on my biggest issue: there is absolutely no character with whom I sympathize. Ryan is unambiguously our hero, but he has that tremendously unappealing blend of being kind of pathetic and kind of cocky about it. Even Bacon can’t rise above it. So who else might I want to spend time with? The show serves up several options, each complete with an insurmountable barrier to empathy that the plot and the ludicrous premise demand.
Early on, I occasionally felt bad for Claire, which was largely a residual of completely falling in love with Natalie Zea on Justified. And she should be a sympathetic hero in most respects, as she is a victim of circumstance and has proven tough and fierce enough to avoid being an utterly typical damsel in distress. The problem is, she is constantly making decisions that, while not nearly the dumbest thing in a given episode, are simply not ones that we would make in her position. She ditches her FBI protection to volunteer to be the cultists hostage after she has escaped from having ditched her FBI protection and volunteered to be the cultist’s hostage. She keeps stabbing Joe, but apparently just because she likes how it feels, because she won’t finish the job. Plus she’s in love with Ryan, who sucks at everything, and married Joe, who was a smarmy douchebag on a good day, when he was hiding that he was actually Jack The Ripper.
And let’s have a hand for the Following Bureau of Investigation. They may not accomplish much, but they sure try their hardest, don’t they? Honestly, the presentation of law enforcement on this show feels like someone trying to make a gritty drama based on this classic Onion article. They are epically, tragically inept at every turn. Recent events have shone a harsh light on just how fucking ridiculous it is that the world’s most famous serial killer has broken out of jail twice in a matter of weeks (once in a helicopter), and that the Feds can’t find three agents to rub together for a raid no matter how many people get murdered on national TV. There was a sting on a 10th grade pot dealer in Little Rock last week with more manpower devoted to it than Bacon’s foray into the cult’s paramilitary militia training facility. But of course, they have to be incompetent, because they have the combined resources of the federal government of the world’s greatest superpower behind them, and the cult has kitchen knives and a few copies of The Purloined Letter. We are instinctively drawn to people who are good at their jobs, and want to root for the underdog. This premise will not allow for the good guys to be either.
Finally, we have the cultists themselves, and the show’s baffling request that we invest in their romantic and interpersonal entanglements. They are definitely the underdogs in this situation, as it is literally them against the world, and as the characters in the tightest corners, they could potentially have the wildest problems to deal with. But there is just the little issue that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM JOINED UP FOR THE EXPRESS PUPOSE OF TORTURING AND KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE FOR KICKS. Including Jacob, the “sympathetic” one.
“Is that negotiator-talk? It won’t work, lady!” – MORE ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM THE SHOW
JUSTIN: I guess I like Claire. You almost have to feel for her a little because she’s 2 for 2 in the don’t date that guy department. She’s focused on getting her son back, and no one is helping her accomplish that task, so you have to forgive her for her crazy gambles. The FBI certainly can’t protect her. After years of no communication, Hardy is trying to half-patch things up WHILE her son is kidnapped. After trying to make sense of the law enforcement side of the show, the cult has to look somewhat normal to her. Who else? Cult expert Debra Parker has an interesting background that ties into the show. But they’ve done nothing with it. I like the actress though. Shrugs.
Anyway, the show can’t really make any character compelling. They want you to sort of care about the main individual cult members….but, like you said, they are super weird and crazy murderers. They only reason I imagine that they focus on side characters so much is that Kevin Bacon, before he signed on to the show, put it in his contract that he didn’t want to appear in every scene.
That’s my theory, at least.
- “He had a sense of honor about him. Like he was living up to some code of conduct.”
– STILL ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM THE SHOW
It is (somehow) going to get a season two, so it will be interesting to see what problems the show’s staff attempt to resolve. I don’t know if Joe Carroll and his countless minions will continue into season two or not, but the show would certainly be better off burning everything to the ground and introducing a new threat. They also really need to discover what makes Ryan Hardy a compelling character. He is arrogant for no reason. None. He is constantly failing – and they don’t even make that interesting. His “death curse” theory comes across as nothing more than a woe is me complaint. He needs to have a little success so we can believe him as a sharper-than-the-rest investigator. Rather than a disheveled dumbass whose main characteristic is that he doesn’t like authority.
There are critics that suspect that Kevin Williamson is using this show to not so subtly poke fun at the murderTV genre. I don’t believe it for a second. But I can see why people are throwing that excuse at the show. How else can you explain some of the dumb shit they throw in there?
AL: The thing is, which explains most of the dumb shit and bodes ill for a second season surge in quality, is that this is a fundamentally broken foundation for an ongoing series. This concept could maybe work as a 2 hour movie, where we followed Hardy and the FBI exclusively, allowing the paranoia of anyone possibly being a cultist to drive the tension. To fill runtime of a series, though, we have to spend some time with the cult, which is just awful. We can’t sympathize with them, and seeing their inner workings just highlights the absurdity of the scenario on every level. If we were only ever with Ryan while he received untraceable calls from Joe and killers popped up and disappeared, we could just marvel along with him (our identification character) at how they are managing to pull this off. When we can see behind the curtain, that it’s just a house full of weirdo fucks with one IT guy, it diminishes their threat and makes us lose respect for the FBI in the process for not being able to counter them. And it’s not like we have an abundance of respect for the FBI to start with. Even our hero Captain Failure spends half his time sneering at how stupid they are.
The other thing about spending time with the killers is that it puts the onus on the writers to portray Joe as a legitimately compelling figure who could attract such a cult of personality. And they are clearly not up to that task. Joe’s characterization feels like a dumb person’s idea of a genius. He’s running this impossibly elaborate operation, fueled by the blood of followers that volunteer for suicide just to be a small part of some dumb book they’ve never even glimpsed, and all he has to offer them for their service are shallow literary allusions and arbitrarily tortured sentence constructions
“Claire was crafty with that bloody knife. But I remain undaunted!” – TOTALLY ACTUAL DIALOGUE
In terms of fixing it, I don’t think there’s any way to do it. You could completely change the characterization of both the hero and the villain, to make the former actually likeable and the latter actually threatening, but even that wouldn’t get you in the clear. Would an embrace of camp help? I don’t think so; the only thing making this amusing now is how much conviction it has in its own stupidity. If it’s still stupid and lacks conviction it will just be tedious instead of mind-boggling. Can they replace Joe and introduce a new killer? That might be the best option, but the title implies that we will be dealing with this cult for the duration.
JUSTIN: Well, I think they can probably fix it. They have good actors, obviously. And they have a seasoned writing staff that, it seems, is pinned down under an impossible premise. I don’t know, maybe Kevin Williamson has a The Following book of rules that the writing staff is not allowed to break a commandment or else. At least that’s how I like to imagine it. I think one thing that would help the show is to have it comment on itself more. The world of The Following is so crazy and so dumb, the characters – like the audience certainly does – need to call things out. The absolute ineptness of the FBI needs to be addressed. Joe needs to have some followers asking themselves why they are latched onto to someone who has no plan other than to have a candlelit dinner with his ex. Hardy needs to actually be drunk at some point. So far, he just looks like a guy that collects empty vodka bottles for laughs. The show just needs to make fun of itself more. Even once would be nice, actually. The world that Williamson and his staff have created is so ridiculous (press conferences where Poe passages are read, for one) that the audience needs to know the creators are fully in on it.
Beyond all that, I’d be really surprised if they killed Joe Carroll off in the finale. And it maybe isn’t a good idea to kill him off. The character is not compelling. But James Purefoy is a pretty decent actor. And this show needs good actors to hang its bullshit on. Like I said earlier, critics are guessing that Williamson is goofing on murder of the week shows. He’s not. But it would not be a bad idea to course correct and do just that. Or, well, do ANYTHING other than what they are doing now. Make Bacon the maniac next season. Clone Claire. Hire Peter Sarsgaard to play a crazed killer. Oh, wait. That’s how they are patching up The Killing.
AL: What’s funny is that the show has a built in method of commenting on itself, with Joe’s big stupid book, but it doesn’t even register as such because everything around it is so insane and bad that it just feels like more of the same.
“We didn’t date! We flogged each other.”
- EVEN MORE ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM SHOW
But in any case, I don’t agree with you here. For me, the fact that it’s so po-faced about its own stupidity is a big part of what makes it (inadvertently) watchable. I think we have more than enough genre pieces that aren’t actually good on their merits but also try to wink at the audience and force you to laugh with them instead of at them (which any 4th grader can tell you is not as fun). You only get into so-bad-it’s-good territory when you’re genuinely trying to be good. When you’re being bad but also sort of trying to be in on the joke, you’re Snakes On A Plane. And nobody likes Snakes On A Plane.
The problem is definitely not the actors, or at least not the core cast. It’s that this story is built in such a way that there is really only one twist in its arsenal, which it is forced to repeat ad nauseum, and the heroes have to be blitheringly incompetent in order to keep it going. I thought maybe they could pull off some wild status quo change like having Claire get brainwashed into joining the cult or for Roderick to kill Joe and take over, but they’ve closed the door on those possibilities.
Do you have a particular favorite quote from the show? Or example of staggering FBI incompetence? For me I think I have to go with “What the hell, man? Were you beaten as a kid or something? I was just looking for a new friend. DAMN.” Basically, any time one cult member asks another what’s wrong with them or why they’re acting this way, it’s gold. Yes, Vince the Constitutional Extremist, you’re in the secret lair of the deathcult founded by the world’s most notorious serial killer. I’m going to go ahead and say every single person here was either beaten as a child, or something.
“Looks like I drank the Ryan Hardy Juice too.”
- YES ACTUAL DIALOGUE AND NO THEY DIDN’T HAVE THE RIGHTS TO SAY “KOOL-AID” AND NO THAT DID NOT WARRANT A REWRITE
JUSTIN: The all time quote happened last episode. When Carroll was watching surveillance footage of Hardy having sex. After the deed, Hardy reaches for a bottle. And his lover (also a secret cult plant) suggests that his drinking habit will eventually kill him.
Hardy, without missing a beat, says, “Can’t kill me. I’m already dead.”
I mean, that’s just an awful line. We already know that Hardy is depressed and self-obsessed. So when he says shit like that, it’s just hilarious overkill.
As far as the FBI’s stupidity, there are so many instances. It’s a really strange show. Joe’s cult is better organized, and have success after success. Even when Hardy dispatches a member, even a key member, it doesn’t even upset their goal. Well, to the extent that there is a goal . But the FBI has produced nothing but consistent and hilarious failures in the pursuit of the escaped madman.
Anyway, you say the book Joe is writing is commenting on the show. I don’t buy that. I think the creators just want to give Joe some kind of purpose. He really has none. I think that it would have been interesting – well, sort of – to see Joe Carroll’s army of loyal murderers wedded to some kind of insane, overarching evil plot. But the writers don’t give us anything close to that. Joe’s is toying with Hardy. He wants his family back . There are Poe masks and a now exposed training facility. Every now and again he kills one of the cult members or asks one to kill themselves. But to what end? Both Carroll and the writers don’t have much of a reason to even have a gaggle of psychos at the ready. It’s like Williamson came up with a premise, sold it, and then figured out quickly that it didn’t work. But, shit, scripts were due.
It’s actually not that fun to pick on this show. A show like The Walking Dead, which balances its weaknesses with strengths, is more interesting to pick apart. The Following doesn’t really do anything right, so I just kind of feel bad for it. I guess it’s a somewhat popular show. Maybe they will figure, “Hey, people are watching it. We don’t have to fix anything.” (The same attitude they have onThe Walking Dead, unfortunately.) And the second season will be just a continuation of the first. Ugh.
Anyway, at least Comedy Central renewed Nathan for You. There is good renewal news out there, Al. Joe Carroll can’t take that from me.
“I know you’re upset.”
“Yes, and I am processing those feelings through the therapy of words!”
- FUCKS SAKE
AL: I wasn’t saying the book is really successful in commenting on the show, but that it’s a perfect device for it that is just sitting there, untapped. Though I also understand why they’ve been dialing back the Poe stuff as the season goes on, as it’s the biggest dumb-person’s-idea-of-a-smart-person aspect of Joe’s character. The more we see him as a fanboy in his own right, the less believable he is as a cult leader on his own.
But ultimately, The Following is too successful, and also too unrelentingly ugly, nihilistic, and cynical in its violence for me to take pity upon it. I am a great fan of violent TV; my favorite shows are Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad, both of which have more disturbing and certainly more grisly sequencese, but which also treat those developments with a respect and gravity that The Following seems completely incapable of. Here it’s all hollow, sensationalist depravity for no greater purpose than to try to goose the audience enough to stick around through another commercial break. Everything that pearl-clutching scolds claim that violent TV is, in other words. Even if comparing it to cable drama heavyweights like that is unfair, NBC is currently airing a new Hannibal Lecter show that manages to be more gory, more disturbing, and more thoughtful about the lasting effect of such acts than The Following, which loves to throw to commercial on Bacon agonizing over another murder laid at his feet only to come back with him ineffectually quipping along like before. By the way, Hannibal is also gorgeously shot for a network show, in stark contrast to this show’s signature sequence, “Kevin Bacon chases and shoots cultists in a completely unlit tunnel/basement”. I recommend it.
But while trotting out these comparisons, an idea struck me that may be the best route for change in the second year. I was thinking of Sons of Anarchy, a show I quite enjoy for being hyper-violent without the meditative quality I ascribed to those others. But there is a gleefulness to that show’s most bonkers sequences, when severed heads are popping up in chili pots or whatever, that The Following‘s dour tone suppresses. So maybe what they should be shooting for is more pulp than camp. The latter is a bit more self-aware, which I don’t think does this show many favors, but perhaps a bit more enthusiasm for what makes it such a special little turdflake would make things go down smoother.
As it is, you’re right, almost anything would be better. It’s a stupid, ugly, empty show that wastes the talent it has and gives serial killer porn a bad name. So let’s just conclude with an agreement of how incredible The Claw Of Shame is.
“Seriously, did he tell you about his Deathcurse???” – The Following’s season finale airs tonight at Who Cares Nathan For You Is Streaming On Comedy Central’s Website, Eastern Standard Time