DVD REVIEW: The Following – The Complete First Season

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MSRP $39.98
RATED Not Rated
STUDIO Warner Home Video
RUNNING TIME 653 Minutes
• Producer’s Commentary on the Pilot
• The Thrill of the Horror: The Creator Behind The Following
• The Cult of Joe Carroll: Inside the Followers
• The Following Production Chronicles
• The Followers Den
• The Poe Mask
• The Following: Free Megan
• Season Finale Commentary
• Deleted Scenes

The Pitch

Just like Silence of the Lambs, but worse!

The Humans

Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, Natalie Zea, Annie Parisse

The Nutshell

When notorious serial killer Joe Carroll escapes from Death Row and embarks on a new killing spree, the FBI recruits former agent Ryan Hardy, the scarred veteran who capture Carroll nine years earlier. Working closely with FBI specialist Debra Parker and sharp upstart Mike Weston, Hardy quickly discovers that Carroll has masterminded a network of devoted followers who might appear at any place or time to carry out their leader’s diabolical mission. As Carroll’s web tightens around his ex-wife, his son, and Hardy himself, Hardy struggles to protect the innocent, thwart his nemesis, and bring down the twisted cult of serial killers.

The Lowdown

TV’s first flirtation with the Hannibal Lecter mythos started back in 2000 with the premier of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Silence of the Lambs had done what its predecessor, Manhunter, had not and gained both critical acclaim and a box office success. Even in 2001 when Lambs’ abysmal sequel Hannibal was generally regarded as an awful piece of shit, the phantasmagorical charm of the world it let the audience spectate upon was undeniable.

CSI was the most straight-forward rip-off, sporting not only the detailed criminal profiling and forensics that the Hannibal series was known for, but actually snagging Manhunter’s lead William Petersen as the head of the Las Vegas CSI department portrayed in the show. Imitators were legion: Criminal Minds, Bones, NCIS and its spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles, Numbers, Dexter (both books and show), Endgame, Monk, The Mentalist, Psych, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, and The Closer all attempted to cash in on the trend in one manner or another.

2013 was the year that TV decided to quite fucking around with the Hannibal series and just go for full penetration. Last year we got three Hannibal Lecter TV shows, one of them actually about Hannibal Lecter (which is on the same network as The Blacklist, one of the fake Hannibal shows).

Fox’s The Following is the most blatant rip-off, going so far as to be a slightly skewed take on Red Dragon with Kevin Bacon as the Will Graham-like FBI agent pulled out of retirement to stop a serial killer, James Purefoy as our Hannibalesque serial killer pulling the strings from prison, and a cult of devoted followers of Carroll standing in for Francis Dolarhyde.

Even when it’s not ripping off Thomas Harris, it’s ripping off something. This is the show that asks “What if Hannibal Lecter was Charles Manson?” It isn’t a subtle connection either; Carroll is a professor of English and is largely believed to have started his rampage due to the critical failure of his first novel (it’s believed by many that the Manson killings were the result of Charlie’s failed musical career). But fear not, Carroll’s killings aren’t plagiarized from Manson or Lecter. His motif is to base his killings around the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and he obsesses over the beauty of death, particularly the death of a beautiful woman. You can’t see, but I’m doing the most exaggeratedly epic jerk-off motion right now. In addition to having a gimmick that was dreamed up by a 15-year-old boy, he also has an unknown quantity of followers who will unquestioningly do whatever he asks and are serving as sleeper agents, living false lives just waiting for his orders.

Where did Carroll find these lost souls? The internet, of course! He used the incredible hacking skills available to all English professors and hacks through the firewall at the library where he’s taken to study up on legal skills so he can complete his next appeal. It is almost exactly stolen from that part in Red Dragon where Hannibal uses the phone upon which he talks to his lawyer to dial out and tell Francis Dolarhyde where Will Graham lives. So if you have ever wondered what Red Dragon would look like if it were a collaborative effort between a middle-schooler and the ghost of Andy Rooney, Fox has the answer.

“This is our Hannibal Lecter? Really? This is what I’ve been missing, not being on TV all this time?”

The pilot is just the worst. The show happily presents us with a silver platter of bullshit and expects us to gobble it down like a delicious chicken dinner, but it is the most sensible episode of the season. As the show progresses down the rabbit hole into implausibility, only to bleed into outright insanity at mid-season, the curtain is pulled back to reveal that Joe Carroll runs a cult of several hundred serial killers and paramilitary jagoffs. What possible explanation could there be for this? Well, you see, the FBI estimates that there are roughly 300 serial killers operating in the US at any given time and they have been united under Joe Carroll’s charismatic religion based on the works of Poe even though serial killers are typically not community minded and don’t respond well to authority. When they’re in danger they eagerly jump at the chance to die for the opportunity to have a chapter in their leader’s novel. Kevin Williamson (creator of the Scream series and a bunch of other god-awful sophomoric shit) just kind of mashed militias, serial killers, and cults together and assumed nobody would realize that those are three very different things that are fairly mutually exclusive.

The implausibility of Carroll’s cult is pretty minor on the list of inconsistencies the show employs. At several points the cultists escape due to their ability to shoot trained policemen and SWAT before the can react, they secret knives away on their person constantly as if an open-blade knife is easy to carry around all of the time, just in case. Any time two characters stand close to one-another, one of them is going to stab the other in the torso, gut wounds are this show’s Horatio Caine one-liners. You would think the FBI would catch onto this trend and have all their agents wear Kevlar vests but this is the same bureau that keeps sending two to three people into serial killer dens with one gun each and no back-up. I know Silence of the Lambs did that too but Clarice Starling was basically a rogue agent when she just stopped by to ask Jame Gumb a few questions. If the FBI were actually this stupid we’d be the United States of Stormfront by now.

“Come at me, Poe!”

Let me take a moment to stop tearing this show down and acknowledge a couple of good things about it very quickly.

Ryan Hardy is an awful character: he drinks, he broods, everyone around him dies, at one point Joe Carroll straight up calls him a cliche and he’s absolutely right, but Fox was smart to hire Kevin Bacon. He is the only thing holding this show together most of the time.

Shawn Ashmore also deserves some credit as his character, Mike Weston, is not only the most likeable one, but also the the only one capable of making sensible decisions. Ashmore was in The Ruins, Mother’s Day, Frozen, and The Barrens so he’s had his share of being the only good thing in poorly written stupid projects. He just seems happy to not be expendable for once.

Annie Parisse plays Debra Parker, the agent who leads the hunt for Carroll and his followers. She’s an expert on cults and the moment that the show delves into her back-story and explains why she’s so good at her job is the one genuine good character moment of the season. Naturally this moment takes up one-tenth of the episode and is never mentioned again.

Everyone else is just awful. At no point are any of the Carroll’s followers scary or even particularly menacing. They’re smug, pretentious, and oh-so-punchable to the point that there should really be a DVD special feature where we get to watch each one of them get stabbed in the face repeatedly. Instead of being an army of terrifying killers they’re just a sea of smirking pretty hipsters who recite Gothic poetry and talk about how uncool everyone else is for not seeing the value of murder.

The most infuriating aspect of the followers is how much time the writers insist we spend with them. They’re amoral assholes with no regard for human life, I do not care about their bisexual love triangles or how betrayed they feel by each other; they cut a lady’s eyes out earlier, they can go die in a fire. Still, there are two cultists that are particularly awful.

Jacob (played with generic angst by Nico Tortorelli) is the kind of person who would describe himself as a “nice guy.” He’s never killed anyone before and doesn’t have the stomach to start, but he really wants to be in Joe’s cult because… the writer didn’t come up with a reason, so anytime he’s asked he just gets evasive and says they wouldn’t understand (see: hipster). His part in the story is to provide a “will he be redeemed?” storyline, but it goes nowhere. At one point he suffocates a mortally wounded cultist with a pillow and then decides he’s the king of all badasses; this is played entirely straight.

Then there’s Emma. I can’t fault actress Valerie Curry’s performance, in fact she does her job all too well; even amongst a group of amoral psychopathic murderers she’s clearly the worst person ever. In addition to being the biggest murder hipster of the group she has various selfish tendencies which maker her infuriatingly unlikable. She kidnaps a woman’s child, sends her a video of she and Jacob teaching him how to kill animals, and then attempts to make nice only to, predictably, fail miserably; to which she responds “You just need more time.” There are at least two entire episodes that try to make us feel sorry for Emma.

“But they’re crazy!” you might say. All the cultists seem acutely aware of their own psychoses and disorders and are capable of diagnosing everything that’s wrong with them as though they see the problems with their brain but just think it makes them cooler, somehow (See: HIPSTERS!).

“I’ll have a big bowl of scenery, please!”

The cultists’ self diagnoses are one of the many examples of the show unintentionally delving into humorous meta-commentary. I mentioned above how Carroll calls Ryan Hardy a cliche, but it almost becomes a running joke that everyone realizes he’s an underdeveloped character. In one of the shows most wheel-spinning episodes, Joe gets frustrated writing his awful novel and calls Hardy up to ask what his motivation is. The rest of the episode is spent trying, and failing, to answer that question. You can almost see the writer chewing a pencil, fingers poised above the keyboard, as he attempts to justify any of the actions that Grimsmirk McSwingingDick (what I assume to be Hardy’s name from the rough draft) has taken.

Of course the lion’s share of meta-commentary is leveled at Joe Carroll and it usually sounds like actors breaking character to show their disdain for the script. During the episode mentioned in the last paragraph, Hardy deflects Carroll’s question about what his motivation is (presumably because the writer was hurriedly scribbling the answer on a dry-erase board just off camera) by petulantly asking him what his is. James Purefoy pauses for the longest most awkward second before croaking out “Death.” The funniest moment by far is in the final episode of the season where Carroll’s ex-wife mentions what a cliche his Annabel Lee themed finale is and he snaps “It’s a MOTIF, Claire!”

The key problem with this show is its central selling point. Joe Carroll is not charismatic, clever, or even particularly smart; he’s a pretentious, erudite, dandy that’s oblivious to the world around him and makes terrible decisions. That description also works for Hannibal Lecter, though, so what’s the difference? Acting! James Purefoy is the very definition of a workman actor: he shows up, reads his words and makes all the appropriate faces at the right times. James Purefoy is not Anthony Hopkins, he’s not Brian Cox, he’s not Mads Mikkelsen, he isn’t even Gaspard Ulliel.

At least when NBC made their redundant Hannibal rip-off they had the good sense to hire James Spader; he may look like the transition between Godfather Marlon Brando and Island of Dr. Moreau Marlon Brando but at least he has some screen presence and gravitas. Purefoy has no screen presence, his biggest strength is that he kind of looks like someone made a clone of Thomas Jane and left it too close to a heat lamp. I don’t look at him and see a catlike intelligence or a bestial lust for destruction; I see a guy who looks like he owns a lot of posters of prog-rock bands and at least four flannel shirts. I cannot buy that a character is charismatic enough to hold sway over a large group of mentally unstable murderers with disparate motivations and disorders when he isn’t charismatic enough to make me voluntarily finish watching what scene he’s currently in.

“This is six degrees of bullshit.”

This is where unintentional meta-commentary gets a slightly darker shade of light gray. For the first four episodes of The Following I was disgusted with my choice of reviewing material and was merely marking time until my self-induced torture would end. But Kevin Bacon’s performance (as good as his character is bad) began making me pay attention to what I was watching and soon I was wanting to know what happened next.

By the eighth episodes I was firmly in the show’s headspace; while I acknowledged every singe “Look out bitch, he got a knife!” moment (See: Every single scene) I began accepting them. “This is TV, it won’t be as good as a movie.” I though to myself, it was a mantra of comfort when the niggling realizations that I was watching something offensively awful affronted me and Bacon’s easy-going sarcasm wasn’t enough to tamp down the fear and hatred rising within my soul.

It was only in the closing minutes of the season finale (easily the worst of the season) that I finally came to my senses. It was like taking a deep breath after being under water for a long time. Other TV shows seemed so much better (the next person who complains about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in my presence will be forced to watch this A Clockwork Orange style) and I began to feel normal again.

Reflecting on this show, even in my cult-like fervor, it was a joyless experience and I never want to do this again. Normally I would give an “if this is your thing” concession here, but no. If you actually enjoy watching this, you are the devil. Every time you watch one second of The Following a creative and wonderful show is cancelled and its blood shall forever stain your hands.

Kevin Bacon and Shawn Ashmore make this show bearable but they deserve better and so do you. Stare not into this abyss lest it stare back, I’ve been clean for a few weeks now and still find myself thinking “I wonder what Ryan Hardy is up to in season 2…” I’m like the not-awful Olsen sister in that movie where she plays the girl with all the M names, just waiting for the day when The Following finds me and drags me kicking and screaming back into its dark desolate corner.

The Package

There’s some behind the scenes stuff and a producers commentary of the first and last episodes. There’s also some deleted scenes.

The Following: The Complete First Season is presented in “matted” widescreen to preserve its TV aspect ratio but make you feel like you’re watching something with value. It comes in a fancy cardboard “who do you even think you are” slipcase like it’s The Sopranos or something.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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