I don’t understand “The Following,” and that’s not because it’s some mind-bending, twist-ridden thriller, because it isn’t — not even close. I just don’t understand what it means. And I’m starting to think that’s because it doesn’t mean anything at all.
“It’s too violent,” my mom said of the FOX series, which stars James Purefoy (“Rome”) as Joe Carroll, a sadistic serial killer who manipulates a cult of wannabe Ted Bundys into doing his deeds while he remains behind bars. My mom, like most of the world, was drawn to the show because of its other leading man: Kevin Bacon (Every movie ever) as Ryan Hardy, the deteriorating FBI agent who caught Carroll the first time around.
At first, all anyone could think about once the show was greenlighted was: Kevin. Bacon. On. Television. It seemed like a gift from the TV gods. But as the promotional tours kicked up and screeners were sent out, the show’s violence became its defining quality. As the discourse on gun violence becomes louder and louder, so too stirs criticism of violent television, and “The Following” is an easy target.
Even though it’s on network television at 9 p.m., the show gets away with the kind of gore that slashes through cable TV. In the pilot, a woman gouges her own eye in dedication to Carroll. Next episode, a man in an Edgar Allan Poe mask — Carroll is a Poe devotee and former English professor — lights a pedestrian on fire. Shots of mutilated victims and bloodied corpses populate every episode.
At the annual Television Critics Association conference in January, FX president James Lindelof silenced a room when he offered his own take on the issue: Citing gun violence figures from the United Kingdom, he pointed out that the discrepancies between the United States and United Kingdom are vast.
“We consume the same … movies, same television shows, same videogames,” he said. “Anything and everything that bears any responsibility for these kinds of tragedies, up to and including what we do in the media, should be fair game … (but) if you want to look at the major difference between England and the United States, it’s access to and availability of guns.”
He’s right, of course. Media is powerful and shapes us in ways we don’t always realize. But to blame the television, film and gaming industries for the high rates of gun violence in this country without looking at accessibility of guns and the inaccessibility of health care for the mentally ill downplays very serious flaws in our legal system.
I don’t think that the relationship between violent television and mass shootings is one necessarily characterized by causation, but I do think it profoundly shapes the way we respond to tragedy. Media coverage of shootings almost always focuses on the killer. People demand a motive; they demand answers; they want all of the details of the person who could be responsible for such horrible atrocities, and so we end up with lengthy magazine profiles of the triggerman — a portrait of a killer, an inside look at the mind of a murderer, the life of a gunman.
“The Following” doesn’t probe this dark aspect of human nature, doesn’t question people’s obsession with serial killers and real-life villains. Instead, it capitalizes on it. The show glorifies Joe Carroll, makes him almost god-like in his ubiquity and power. His victims get barely any screentime; and when they do, they’re shot with the same amount of attention given to a lamp. The careless, tone-deaf way in which the script executes violence eliminates any sense of stakes or emotional complexity. The killers are walking clichés, and the overuse of flashbacks doesn’t illuminate them so much as fill time.
I’m honestly perplexed, and not just because I never thought it would be possible for me to dislike a show starring Kevin Bacon, but because I never thought it would be possible for me to dislike a show created by Kevin Williamson. This is the man behind the “Scream” franchise, “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Vampire Diaries.” I’m drawn to Williamson’s work as intensely as Carroll’s acolytes are to him. With the “Scream” movies, he deconstructed slasher film and flipped its most trite tropes on their heads. But “The Following” seems to be guilty of exactly what “Scream” served to critique — a dead-behind-the-eyes thriller that’s all bark and no bite.
Blood for the sake of blood doesn’t make intelligent entertainment. “The Following” tries its hardest to put on an edgy, grisly show, but sputters along recklessly. “Justified,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” aren’t great because they’re gory — they have much more than that. “The Following” has Bacon, but he’s given little more to do than spit sassy comebacks (in one episode, Hardy literally sits in a chair the whole time and makes fun of the three Carroll-students-slash-revolving-sex-partners) and guzzle vodka from water bottles. “The Following” has Natalie Zea (“Justified”), but she’s given little more to do than cry and give Bacon googly eyes and make Kim Bauer-level poor decisions.
And none of it means anything! The biggest takeaway is … everyone, literally everyone, is probably a serial killer. Cops, prison guards, former soldiers — no character in the world of “The Following” is exempt from being a Carroll crew suspect. You can’t trust anyone, and as a result, you can’t care and suspension of disbelief becomes too much to ask for.
Regardless of how you feel about the ultra-violent programs dominating television these days, they’re not going anywhere any time soon. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and “The Following” post unbelieveable ratings week after week. Violence sells. But there are plenty of smart, meaningful series that know how to make the violence work without detracting from the story. “The Following” hasn’t learned that lesson yet. So what’s the point of following in the first place?