Why shows like The Following cheapen violence and diminish its power
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After just four weeks on the air, The Following looks like the buzzy new drama hit the broadcast TV season—and particularly the Fox network—needed. It opened big, actually increased slightly in week two (something that’s almost unheard of in modern TV), then slowly tapered off. Barring some sort of unprecedented catastrophic collapse, it looks like the show will be with us for many years to come. And here’s the thing: The Following is almost completely a “watching beautiful people get stabbed” delivery vehicle.
As I said in my review of the first episode, watching four episodes of The Following in rapid succession mostly made me feel like dog shit. Other writers responded by saying they were simply done with the level of graphic brutality the show had on offer, that the events of Newtown, Aurora, or take your pick, really, had changed their views on what it was like to watch a stylish, urbane serial killer mesmerize people before he slid a knife into them (or got a “follower” to do it by proxy). I don’t really feel this way, though. I like plenty of hyper-violent TV shows, and I like shows like The Walking Dead, where the violence is rarely directed at humans, but is certainly depicted with a bizarrely intricate level of craft. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what set me off about The Following wasn’t just that it’s violent. It was that it’s empty and pointless in its violence. And far too much of TV is like this. TV is addicted to violence as one of the few ways it knows how to create dramatic stakes. Increasingly, it’s the only way TV knows how to create stakes.
The concept of “dramatic stakes” seems self-evident, but it’s fairly easy to confuse with “conflict,” so I’ll step back and explain what I mean. The stakes of a story are whatever the protagonist (or supporting players who back the protagonist up) stands to lose. Most shows have them, buried somewhere down in the subtext, but few shows use them well. I could write another essay, for instance, on how Modern Family was so good in its first season because there was still a sense that the members of the titular family didn’t treat their love of each other as a given. They had had a conflict-ridden relationship for many years, and they were only starting to put their family back together. (This is alluded to in the pilot, then brought up a handful of times throughout the first season.) By seasons two and especially three, the characters seemed to have forgotten all about this. They were happy, friendly folk, and their love was simply understood to exist. Or, put another way, it’s possible to do a story with conflict—the “this vs. this” concept that drives drama—but without meaningful stakes. It’s very hard to do the reverse.
On television, the dramatic stakes have to be longer-term than the simple stakes of any given episode’s dramatic conflict. (To return to our Modern Family example, it doesn’t really have a bearing on the show if Manny bombs out with the girl he has a crush on; it does if Claire and Mitchell reflect on some of the problems of their childhood and upbringing.) The best dramatic stakes push past something external or physical and down to something internal, something that might affect the character’s soul. The best example of this on TV right now is probably Breaking Bad, where the physical stakes are self-evident (Walter White might die!) but the internal stakes are also self-evident. (He might lose his soul on the way there!) When the dramatic stakes are well-developed, the physical feeds into the internal and vice versa, the text driving the subtext and back around again.
The easiest stakes to understand are life-and-death stakes. This is part of the reason why cops, lawyers, and doctors have been the three mainstays of TV drama for decades. In addition to providing a ready engine for stories, they also provide lots of stories where guest characters might lose their lives. In the best examples of the form, these life-or-death stakes have similar long-term, internal stakes that affect the show’s protagonists on a psychological or emotional level. Hill Street Blues is about solving the case of the week, but it’s also about cops trying to hold onto their moral centers in the face of a wave of unrelenting crime. ER might be about the patients who swing through the doors of the emergency room, but it’s also about the messiah complexes of many of the doctors, about the idea that not everybody can be saved—or should. (This extends to the doctors as well.) The Practice—at least early in its run—is about the law firm trying to save its clients, but also about the lawyers trying to preserve what integrity they have left. These are all such basic devices that they verge on cliché, but they’ve become cliché because they’re recognizable as truth, at least on some level. The cop struggling to avoid corruption, the doctor with the need to save everybody, the lawyer trying to rise above the profession: They’re archetypes we know well from years of these kinds of stories.
But it’s hard to build these internal conflicts. They take time and character development. Far easier is simply using something unusual or unexpected to shock the audience. Particularly in recent years, this has meant a burst of sudden, terrifying violence that aims to garner a visceral, immediate response from the audience. The life-and-death stakes are suddenly there, right up in the viewer’s face, and the only thing to think about is how terrifying it would be to be in the shoes of the person up there onscreen. There’s nothing wrong with trying to elicit this particular reaction. Even a show as small-scale as Six Feet Under turned an entire episode over to the fear of potential death, when it had one of the show’s family members suffer at the hands of a carjacker. A sudden burst of cacophonous violence or terror can be a powerful tool in the hands of a good writer, a moment when the usual façade comes tumbling down, and fear is the only reaction left.
The problem with a show like The Following is that the violence becomes entirely programmatic. Notice that the above acts of violence are so powerful because they’re so shocking. There’s nothing of this sort on The Following, where every episode contains a gruesome killing or act of desperate violence. The physical stakes—wouldn’t it suck to be stabbed?—become essentially the same as the internal stakes, in which every character just wants to not be stabbed. (Or set on fire, or vivisected, or…) The Following is a horror show, and horror doesn’t necessarily need to have huge internal stakes, because usually, the need for survival supersedes all other needs. But the consequence is that the show becomes a grim, relentless march toward more and more death, where everything is treated with a glib smile, and the prospect of further brutality becomes popcorn fodder, if not completely empty.
Or consider Dexter. Early in its run, the show at least attempted to do the “external and internal stakes” thing, with each episode involving Dexter Morgan, serial killer, catching up to some victim who needed to be on his table of death. He’d dispatch that victim, and the audience would perhaps cheer for him or perhaps be scared of him, but at all times, the show was also engaged with the question of whether he realized that what he did was wrong on a fundamental level. After the second season, however, the show increasingly took its protagonist’s point of view, and it was forced to neuter the character, lest the show truly engage with any moral quandary. There were good moments in the show, but it never truly became focused again until the most recent season, when the series returned to the deep-rooted psychological questions at the heart of its main character, and the father who trained him to be what he became.
If possible, The Following is even more facile. It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about its violence. It doesn’t particularly care to talk about damaged individuals who can be taken in by a killer or about the media’s obsession with violence or even about the role of violence in art. It occasionally seems to saunter up to these questions (particularly the last, when it almost seems to be offering meta-commentary on its own existence as a weekly television show), but then it steps away, because considering the deeper implications of the troubling acts within the show could potentially turn off the audience. The violence in The Following needs to all be of the funhouse variety, or else it would push too much, be too raw. The audience must be coddled.
It would be nice to say that The Following is the only show that relies on these kinds of empty violent acts to drive its narrative, but that description could refer to nearly every TV drama at one point or another. (Yes, even Breaking Bad, which featured the death of a child in its fifth season, which felt mostly manipulative and shocking for shock’s sake.) Again, a shocking act of violence here or there within a narrative is sometimes necessary, particularly when the series plays out all of the permutations of what could happen next, what could stem from that act. But when violence becomes as base and programmatic as it is in The Following, or even in much better series like Sons Of Anarchy or The Walking Dead, the violence loses its power as a story point. It becomes cheap, a way to simply motivate the audience into having a particular reaction on a lizard-brain level. And then, after a while, it just becomes numbing. The next stabbing or face-stomping or shooting becomes just another body to add to the pile, and the drama of the situation is eroded.
There are so many other stories we could be telling, so many other kinds of dramatic stakes. There are relationships that are falling apart. There are people who have diseases and are dying. There are kids who are growing up, and people making big, life-altering decisions they can’t see the other side of. There are so many more traumatic things that can happen to us in our lives than being killed—and there are so many wonderful things that can happen, too. Yet when a show that embraces these sorts of questions and concerns comes along, like Parenthood or The Good Wife or Mad Men or even Downton Abbey, it’s all too often derided as “soft,” as a show unwilling to deal with the real issues—or, worst of all, as just a “soap” that dares deal more with relationships than constant plot twists. But the issues we deal with in our day-to-day lives have so much more to do with the above than they do with the fear of being stabbed. By going all-in on dark violence, TV drama has dug itself into a pit of despair, and the sides often seem too steep to let it climb out.