The Following debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern.
When Alaskan authorities arrested Israel Keyes last year for the murder of an Anchorage barista, they unexpectedly discovered one of the most horrifying trails of serial murder in United States history. Keyes, a construction worker, was so successful at murder because he not only selected people at random—and would travel thousands of miles to kill them—but because he would set up elaborate preparation kits in out-of-the-way places, the better to allow him to kill with seeming impunity. In just one story he let slip to investigators working on his case (before he killed himself), he spoke of traveling to New England, where he had planted one of his kits two years prior, then waiting outside the house of a middle-aged couple before breaking in during the middle of the night to haul them off to an abandoned building and kill them. He hid their bodies in a pile of rubble, which was later hauled off to the dump. They were never recovered.
The Following wants to be about a Keyes-like figure (though it seems distinctly unlikely creator Kevin Williamson, who’s been working on variations of this idea for years, was at all inspired by Keyes); where it falls apart is in its refusal to engage with its story on anything but the most surface of levels. Fox, the channel that’s airing it, keeps airing ads that quote an article about the show which says viewers won’t believe it’s not on cable. Double negatives aside, it would seem Fox is falling into the old problem of thinking that what makes cable dramas so great is the fact that cable networks can get away with more adult content, because the restrictions binding them are less stringent. This was a fallacy the networks fell into after the rise of The Sopranos, and it’s one they will inevitably fall into again. When wondering why cable dramas like Breaking Bad are driving conversation while dramas like Walking Dead are grabbing viewers, broadcast network executives too often look at the things they can’t do—the blood! the gore! the terror!—and don’t realize what separates them from cable are all the things the broadcast networks won’t do.
Fox president Kevin Reilly kept describing The Following as a show about a “good guy versus a bad guy” at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, and he’s not wrong. On the one level, the show literally is a cat and mouse game between Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy (the good guy) and James Purefoy’s Dr. Joseph Carroll (the bad guy). It’s a story where Ryan is drawn back into the FBI—an agency he’d given up after putting Carroll behind bars nearly cost him his life and had a serious effect on his health—because Carroll has escaped from prison. It’s a show where the two men dance around each other and hurl invective at each other, and it all plays out like a really well-acted dinner theater version of Michael Mann’s superior Hannibal Lecter picture, Manhunter.
On another level, good guys and bad guys are literally all The Following is about. It’s about a bad man who escapes from prison. It’s about the good man dispatched to bring him back in. And it’s about how the bad man’s giant web of contacts and planning help to carry out his grand design, a design driven as much by his desire to turn murder into art as anything else. This is a show that has aspirations of greatness at its core, from the moody and striking way it’s shot to the breakneck pacing and twisty storytelling. If nothing else, it’s the show that finally lured Bacon to television, with the promise of shorter seasons and more compressed storytelling. (It’s worth noting that Bacon is fantastic, as good as the show around him is lousy, and the show may be worth watching once just to see his glower on this scale.) It’s not hard to imagine this story popping up on FX or AMC or even HBO. Fox’s proud crowing about having this show on its airwaves, where it stands a very good chance of becoming a monster hit, is understandable, from a certain point of view.
Here’s the thing, though: On FX or AMC or HBO, these characters would be more than ciphers. They would mean something, have something at their core beyond Williamson’s desire to push them around his elaborate game board as cruelly as possible. There are attempts to fill in Ryan’s back-story—and God knows Bacon does everything he can to make them play—but they’re often ludicrous and completely disconnected from everything else. The show develops character in terms of externalities, instead of internalities. Ryan has a sister. He once had a lover. This means that he is a Good Man. There’s no real attempt to engage with the character beyond the level of the action figure; everyone remains frustratingly opaque.
It’s here that the reason The Following remains critic-proof comes into play. Fox sent four episodes of this show out to critics, all of them with their moments and at least two with something like a genuinely compelling storyline. But to talk at all about the show, or its characters, or its premise, will essentially ruin several upcoming twists that most viewers would presumably want preserved. Suffice it to say, though, that this is a show where Nothing Is As It Seems, and it has all the same hazards such a show will always have. Once a writer establishes that anything can happen, then it’s difficult to engage with the characters beyond the archetypal level. That more or less works on Williamson’s other series, The Vampire Diaries, because what he’s going for is a deeply archetypal story (and his love of relentless plotting and twists is balanced out by another writer and showrunner, in the form of Julie Plec). It doesn’t on The Following, because there are ideas and depth here, but Williamson is only interested in setting them up in a window display to prove that he’s paying attention before moving on to the next “shocking” moment.
Much has been made of the violence of The Following, particularly in the wake of the massacre in Connecticut at the end of last year. The problem with the violence in the show isn’t that it exists, or that it may seem like too much to people sensitive in the wake of yet another hail of gunfire. It doesn’t even stem from the fact that the show sometimes plays like a YouTube instructional video on how to turn oneself into a serial killer. It’s that the violence is empty. There’s so much of it, and it means so little—just there to shock and provoke—that it ultimately becomes an exercise in pointless nihilism. The real conflict is between Williamson and the Fox network censors to see how far he can push them. Would you believe they’re willing to be pushed very far? (Tellingly, the one storyline that works is mostly about sex and not about violence, and it’s also the one that gave Fox censors heart attacks.) Violence becomes a kind of cheap conflict drug, and the show’s writers keep trying to get hit after hit. The effect wears thin, particularly for those familiar with horror movies, who will see every single twist coming.
And, okay, here’s a personal reaction: I watched four episodes of this thing, and it made me feel like dog shit. (While we’re at it, I’ll also say I watched the pilot for this the first time last summer, long before Newtown, and I liked it less back then.) I’m not calling for television to always be life-affirming or for it to always depict nice, happy things. I love a lot of dark shows, and I even have something I guess you could call “fun” with the grim despair of The Walking Dead. But those other shows are trying hard to get at fundamental truths of human nature, even the goofy oddity that is The Walking Dead. They’re hoping to talk about the things that make us human beings, good and bad, and when they get to their big, cool moments, they really earn those moments. The Following essentially wants to be nothing but cool moments, and that means there are constant diminishing returns, a trudge through a slog of darkness that becomes unrelenting. With other writers, this could have been a show about what it is that causes disturbed people to seek solace in other disturbed people, or what it is that drives dark hearts to violence. Hell, it could have been a meta-commentary on what it means to try to create “art” out of stories where horror and death are the primary objectives. Instead, Williamson and his team keep hitting the “cool” button until all they have is something like a video game, with each successive level asking players to defeat a new serial killer.
The Israel Keyeses of the world exist. They are disruptions in our otherwise orderly existence, terrifying visitations that swoop in out of nowhere and split lives in two. Knowing that Israel Keyes was out there—that there are probably others like him who have been or even currently are out there—that’s a scary notion, a notion that prompts consideration of the awful things human beings are capable of. But to engage with that would require emotional acuity, structural rigor, and ideas deeper than dime-store philosophy. The Following doesn’t want to be about Israel Keyes or any of the dozens like him; it wants to be about a man who chases after a grinning phantom, encoded in 8-bit, told at the end of every episode that, we’re sorry, but the princess is in another castle.