The first five minutes of The Following’s second-season premiere, “Resurrection,” contain the Fox drama’s most human storytelling. Compared to the gory “previously on The Following” season-one recap—which displays several bloody stabbings and a conflagration on a beach—the opening scenes deal with something far less dramatic: Ryan Hardy tries to get on with his life.
As FBI agent Hardy, Kevin Bacon has always been wasted on The Following. The show has rarely required him to emote much past a sneer or a soulful glance. But Bacon’s strength in any production is his presence, which takes up space even when he isn’t doing much else. It makes him a character to root for, even in a show as muddled as The Following.
His talent comes to bear in “Resurrection,” which reveals that Claire Matthews—Hardy’s lover, played by Natalie Zea—dies as a result of the stabbing in the final minutes of the first season. The episode then fast-forwards to a year later, where Ryan is five months sober, teaching criminology, and maintaining a strong relationship with his friends from Al-Anon and his niece, Max, who is also in law enforcement.
It’s only in showing these shreds of normalcy Ryan is holding onto that The Following lets on just how terrible its first season was. One of the show’s biggest flaws was that none of its tragedies ever stuck; the murders, assaults, scenes of torture, and emotional manipulation mostly existed for shock value. In Ryan’s quiet life, the tragedy has room to be felt. Naturally, the premiere is liberal with its interpretation of what the events of last season really “meant,” but that it shows some effort toward a plausible interiority makes it stand out from season one.
“Resurrection” manages to shed a lot of the dead weight from last season, too: The show had no use for Claire beyond using her as a totem of sorts that connected Hardy and his serial-killing nemesis, Joe Carroll. Joey, Claire’s son with Carroll, has been dispatched to witness protection, which removes the custody-battle element of the story. At first, anyway, it feels like a simple story about a man trying to recover from tragedy, and Bacon’s performance and the surprisingly thoughtful writing is enough to sell it.
But The Following is still The Following; the only way the show could shed all of the aspects that made it such a mess in season one would be to implode completely and start from scratch. It would be a blessing if the drama would jettison the entire concept of a death-cult based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, because nothing about that makes an iota of sense. Its horribly written, cartoonish leader, Joe Carroll (played by a gleefully over-the-top James Purefoy), defies the willing suspension of disbelief. But The Following is loath to leave Carroll behind, just as it is loath to leave behind his implausible murder-cult. The show’s insistence on pounding home the cult’s obsession with Poe—as well as its heavy reliance on the all-knowing, all-powerful nature of both Joe Carroll and his followers—will always cut off any episode of The Following at the knees. Even one that has the potential to be good.
Despite an aggressive viral marketing campaign that promises a more profound show, The Following continues to be a mess of unexamined violent tropes and sustained, sexualized violence against women. In the premiere, Ryan’s class examines a crime where the murderer masturbated into his victim’s panties after stabbing her, and revealing that the series seems hell-bent on continuing to be the assaultive show it started out as. Whether Joe is alive or dead is supposed to be a mystery—but as any smart television-watcher will know, if you didn’t see the body and the second-season premiere is titled “Resurrection,” there’s only one way that story can go. Purefoy is loathsome in The Following—not nuanced enough to be sympathetic, but not campy enough to be funny. Instead he is just a character who inspires little else but blind rage—at the very least because he has so poorly interpreted Poe’s works.
What is interesting is that Bacon’s Ryan Hardy ends up going rogue in his pursuit of the cult; despite his seeming mental clarity, he is fixated on revenge. His niece helps him out with his “hobby,” in between dinner parties at his house. The niece—a smart, attitudinal woman played by Jessica Stroup—is a breath of fresh air on a show so dedicated to being dour. Connie Nielsen has also been hired as a series regular, playing an early victim of the revived cult. Nielsen is often luminous in terrible roles—her portrayal of the beleaguered mayor’s wife in Boss comes to mind—but she adds a gravity and depth to The Following that allows it to be a bit more than it was in season one. But only a bit: Valorie Curry’s Emma is still around, as is Shawn Ashmore’s Mike Weston, who is consulting with the FBI after a brief suspension. Both characters did little but drag down the first season, and it’s unlikely that Emma’s purple hair and lip-piercing will change that.
Even if The Following continues to be a bad television show, this is a better version of “bad” than it put forth last year. The characters are more tangibly real; the creepiness, when it crops up, is less splashy, more psychological. (Both murder scenes in “Resurrection” are distinctly horrifying in their own ways.) The Following is an irresponsible proponent of the type of violence that numbs audiences to gore, but in this second-season opener it takes a few necessary steps to begin the process of interrogating itself. That’s heartening, but it’s unlikely The Following will go much farther than that. For a show so bent on shock value, it has to this point failed to surprise much.
Created by: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, Connie Nielsen
Returns: Sunday, following the NFC Championship game on Fox, before returning to the Monday 9:00 p.m. Eastern timeslot.
Second-season premiere watched for review