You can tell what kind of show The Following is going to be in the opening seconds of the pilot. The first thing you see is the exterior of a prison that will soon be the sight of a violent break-out, and the first sounds you hear are the opening strains of Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”. Released right as Manson was breaking into the mainstream, the song pretty much sums up his entire persona: dark and grim to the point of dreariness and “creepy” in a way that flirts with self-awareness but never quite gets there. Manson was all about flash, surface-over-substance, and a healthy dose of shock value. Coincidentally, that’s also a perfect description of The Following.
The premise for The Following (developed by Kevin Williamson, writer/creator of Scream and Dawson’s Creek) is so outrageous and dumb that it goes back around to being good again. The long version is something like this: Kevin Bacon plays a disgraced, alcoholic FBI agent who is called out of retirement after the serial killer (played by James Purefoy) he put away escapes and starts killing again… only this time, the killer has help. The short version is: the guy from Wild Things fights a cult of serial killers.
A cult of serial killers. Now, neither cults nor serial killers are fun in real life, but when you cram them together into a tv show, it has the potential for trashy, pulpy fun. It sounds like a forgotten horror movie from the early-80’s, a blood-soaked nightmare of pop-culture death-obsession and Reagan-era paranoia. If you don’t think any of that sounds a little awesome, well, you’re entitled to your opinion, but remember it is possible for your taste to be too refined.
Think of all the possibilities: maybe the cult worships a made-up “Egyptian” god of death, or maybe they treat all the famous real-life serial killers as saints. It might be in bad taste, but there’s room for a little bad taste on television. This show could be great as long as it didn’t take itself too seriously. Think of how boring that could get, if The Following was so dark and humorless that even the violence started to feel perfunctory? Or if the writers peppered the script with literary references in a failed reach at meaning? Boy, a show like that wouldn’t be very good at all.
Unfortunately, the show we got is not a silly, over-the-top story that the premise calls to mind, but is actually a pretty dour affair. The term ‘misery porn’ gets bandied about a little too frequently, but it conjures up an image of misery for misery’s sake, and that’s a good description of this show. At least in the pilot, the world of The Following is filled to the brim with evil people doing evil things. It’s such a depressing place to be that every time a character tries to crack a joke–which happens rarely–it comes across as awkward and forced.
Speaking of misery porn, there’s another lesser-known term that fits this show: ‘gorn’. Gorn is a portmanteau of ‘gore’ and ‘porn’, and there’s about as much of that here as you could get on a major network. If you have any ocular mutilation phobias or just a general aversion to animals being harmed, you should probably skip out on this one.
If you can get past the bleakness and the bloodshed, though… you might want to stick around. The Following is never going to be great, and it probably won’t even live up to its admittedly meager pedigree (“The guy who wrote Cursed and the villain from Hollow Man? Sign me up!” says no one). But it could be reasonably entertaining if it just chose a side. Obviously, the trashy/over-the-top/Saint-Ed-Gein version of the show would be great, but there’s also a version of this show where all the Edgar Allen Poe stuff seems necessary instead of just a coming across as a pretentious affectation. That version of the show peeks its head out for about five minutes at the end of the pilot.
After Purefoy is re-captured, Bacon confronts him in a holding facility. Purefoy sees his killing as art (he’s a literary professor, which at least gives some context for the never-ending barrage of references to “The Raven”) and he’s getting ready to start up a new work. He considers it a sequel to his first “story,” and he’s cast Bacon in the lead role. Purefoy’s monologue takes the familiar tropes and archetypes of serial-killer story and pokes at them. For example, Bacon’s character is one of the most clichéd “troubled man seeking redemption” characters to come around in a while, but his one-note, scowl-y persona is almost redeemed when Purefoy explicitly calls him out as a “troubled man seeking redemption.”
Purefoy’s monologue also addresses the most unpleasant part of the episode: the death of Sarah, the only one of Purefoy’s targets that Bacon was able to save, and the person he spends the entire episode trying to protect. When she dies, it’s more disappointing than scary: the show could have done several interesting things with her character that didn’t involve killing her. However, Purefoy taunts Bacon by framing her death as “the inciting incident” of his new work, something to give Bacon motivation, and it comes close to making it seem not only necessary, but kind of smart. The whole thing is very Kevin Williamson-y, which is absolutely a real word.
This one self-aware scene isn’t enough to make the rest of the pilot any less of a drag, but it does point the way to a version of this show that’s closer to Scream. Scream is sometimes criticized for thinking that meta-commentary is clever in itself, as if just pointing out a cliché makes it okay to indulge in that cliché. Scream does fall into this trap sometimes, but it’s mostly effective in using that commentary to liven up the proceedings while delivering a thrilling and entertaining slasher movie.
You can almost see a version of The Following that works the same way: a tense cat-and-mouse game played out between the disgraced hero and a villain that uses his own genre-saviness to gain the upper-hand. It would be thrilling, it would be meta-fictional, and it would almost certainly fall apart after one or two seasons. But boy, what a show it would be.
It’s also the sort of show you wouldn’t normally find on a network like Fox, and while Fox has claimed in advertisements that “you won’t believe The Following isn’t on a cable network,” you absolutely will believe it isn’t on a cable network. Sure, it looks good, it’s got famous actors, and it approaches Starz-levels of gore, but most successful cable dramas are defined by one of two things: they’re either highly cerebral stories like The Sopranos or Deadwood, or they fully embrace their trashiness, like the Strike Backs and Sparatcus’s of the world. You can’t have it both ways, and the creators of The Following would do well to realize that as soon as possible.