How do you watch and remotely relate to a show where more than one major character is the acolyte of a serial killer? That’s the biggest challenge The Following poses for itself. Because as much as the pilot pitched this as a Silence Of The Lambs-style mental battle between grizzled Fed Ryan (Kevin Bacon) and demented jailed killer Joe (James Purefoy), most of “Chapter Two” is spent with Joe’s cultish flock as it regroups and plots the next move in whatever elaborate sick fantasy Joe’s cooked up for his followers. It’s somewhat compelling, as this entire show is, but it’s miserably bleak and also a little pathetic.
It’s one thing for a network TV show to revolve around a serial killer. As Fox keeps reminding us, it’s just so dark of them to do so! And I suppose it’s disturbing that he’s collected a coterie of loons around the country who will happily do his murderous bidding, all in the name of the great Edgar Allen Poe, the unlikely avatar of Joe’s dumb psycho cult. Not only that, it’ll give this show a week-to-week structure and perhaps allow it to sustain itself for many seasons if the ratings stay good.
But there’s quite a few problems with the characters of Emma (Valorie Curry), Jacob (Nico Tortorella) and Paul (Adan Canto), who had posed as friendlies in the pilot before springing into action, killing poor Maggie Grace and kidnapping Joe’s son, who they’ve spirited into the countryside this week. The show does its best to invest these nutbags with some depth—Emma was a mousy girl tormented by an overbearing mother who was charmed by Joe’s writing. He set her up with Jacob, they offed the mom and the rest is history, as we see in flashbacks. But it’s tough to watch or care about the backstory of a girl who is basically Joe’s mental plaything.
It’s even tougher to care about Paul, who posed as Jacob’s gay lover for years and is upset that he’s back with Emma now that they’re all together again. There’s a tension to whether Paul will do something, like attack them or hurt the innocent Joey, but that’s the extent of it—any attempt to invest the viewer emotionally is bound to fail.
Another issue with all of this cult stuff is that Joe has not proven himself particularly magnetic as of yet. Sure, James Purefoy is very handsome and can be devilishly charming with the right material (which this isn’t). But all his blathering about death and writing some grand book and a master plan and— just spare me. We keep being told how charismatic and dangerous Joe Carroll is, but there’s not much to back that up when Purefoy is on screen. The show can’t stop drilling it into us, but still it doesn’t really take. There should be oodles of tension for scenes like Joe seeing his wife Claire (Natalie Zea) for the first time in years, but nope. Even when he’s strangling her there’s no real hint of danger.
Kevin Bacon is doing the best he can—I’d say he’s the only cast member so far who’s even rising to this material, and this material is very hokey. Purefoy is not his match, as of yet, and Shawn Ashmore and the other Feds are just info-dispensing machines right now. Annie Parisse is introduced as the head of the “alternative religion” bureau down at Quantico, so she knows all about cults, and she’s definitely an improvement on Jeananne Goossen, whose character we’re told was kicked off the team for letting Ryan break Joe’s fingers in the pilot episode—but that was probably just a bit of cast reshuffling. Parisse does her best with lines like, “He’s speaking to people through gothic romanticism,” but come on—she’s not an alchemist.
The thing I like the most about this very stupid show is all the Edgar Allen Poe stuff. Every time Ryan points to a corpse or blood on the wall and growls, “classic Poe,” I can’t help but grin. The climax of the episode, in which a man wearing an insane Poe mask lights a guy on fire, is definitely supposed to be freaky, but I couldn’t help but find it amusing. This is such a relentlessly grim show, one has to find humor somewhere, and I choose to find it in Edgar Allen Poe masks.
I’m sure things are going to move along quickly. This is a show with a lot of plot to burn through. But right now I’m watching a show about a derivative serial killer (derivative of… Poe) who commands a bunch of derivative-derivative serial killers. That is not the formula for something watchable. Let’s see how fast things develop.
- The somewhat pathetic Jordy is a better character—best to have some of these acolytes be not very good at serial killing, much more plausible.
- Joe has important questions about Ryan and Claire’s affair. “Did your body quiver to his every touch?”