Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bacon Breaking: Following THE FOLLOWING Season 1

Television tends to suck. It isn't true, as some have suggested, that recent years have seen a general turnaround in the quality of the medium in the U.S. For all the hype, most tv these days is the same old space-wasting seven-and-six it's always been. It is true, however, that these last few years have seen the appearance of a handful of tv-based projects that are often every bit as good as and sometimes even better than the best the cinema is presently offering. Realizing the fortune to be made in producing original programming, the cable channels have provided creators with an environment wherein content restrictions are much looser, wherein shows are free to be much more daring in both their subject-matter and in their approach to it and wherein one can survive and thrive with a much lower ratings-base than on the big networks. As a consequence, the cable channels have become the source of nearly all of the great tv work of recent years.[1] The much-vaunted Golden Age of Television in the 1950s was really, in its totality, a handful of great shows in a sea of otherwise forgettable ones and if that's what qualifies as a Golden Age when it comes to television, I suppose one could say we're living through one right now. I am, in general, a movie guy, not a tv guy. I'm no chauvinist on the point, but it is, initially at least, a well-founded prejudice. Still, I've managed to become embroiled in more television in the last two or three years than I had in the previous twenty combined.[2]

THE FOLLOWING, my subject here, appears on a major network--Fox--instead of cable. Monday saw the conclusion of its freshman season, which seems as good a time as any to offer up some thoughts on it.

The series tells the dark, very much film noir tale of former FBI hand Ryan Hardy, who, back when he still worked for The Man, once apprehended a brilliant and vicious serial killer named Joe Carroll. Carroll had been a professor of literature specializing in Romantic writers and particularly obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. He modeled his crimes on his interpretations of Poe's work. Hardy caught him in the middle of an attempted murder and managed to save the intended victim, but in their confrontation, he was grievously wounded. Grafted to a pacemaker as a result, he left the bureau, authored a bestseller about the case and took to combating his personal demons with demon rum. A decade later, Carroll escapes from prison and the bureau ropes in Hardy as an adviser. He manages to catch Carroll again, but only after the killer has managed to murder the last victim of his original killing spree--the one Hardy saved a decade earlier. It turns out Carroll has been spending every waking moment of his captivity devising his revenge on Ryan Hardy and he's been developing a cult following from prison, building a sort of twisted religion around Poe and attracting, via the internet, a coterie of killers, crazies and miscreants for the purpose of carrying out his plan.

As that basic outline suggests, THE FOLLOWING is, conceptually speaking, very derivative. There are big, meaty chunks of Thomas Harris in the stew ("Red Dragon", "The Silence of the Lambs" and their screen adaptations), along with bits of flicks like SE7EN, COPYCAT, IN THE LINE OF FIRE, even James McTeigue's recent Poe flick THE RAVEN. The lifts are reflected in every physical aspect of the series, from the direction to the editing to the musical choices. It would, however, be wrong to simply dismiss THE FOLLOWING as just some rip-off. The series is the creation of SCREAM scribe Kevin Williamson, who always offers up appreciative tips of the hat to the genres in which he often works. THE FOLLOWING uses a few worn items from the toolkit of the better killer thrillers but the tale it tells is its own. The real question in judging it is, how well does it work?

And in season 1, it worked pretty damn well most of the time, which is no small accomplishment. While the series legitimately takes critical lumps for its conceptual cannibalization, the fact that it's being done as a single story in the serial (as opposed to episodic) television format does make it bold and even original. Pulling off a killer thriller in weekly installments is a daunting task. It's never been done before. It has never even been attempted. These sorts of stories work as features because filmmakers can put an audience on a roller-coaster, send them for a brief, white-knuckled ride, then, like any other roller-coaster, it reaches the end of the track and it's over. An open-ended series operating under the same rules is a roller-coaster that theoretically never ends. THE FOLLOWING tries to keep viewers on the edge of their seats in as close to perpetuity as it can manage, working at a much more intense pace than most television. Mirroring its noir roots, the atmosphere is one of pervasive evil and constant tension--dark, relentless and thick with the same divine air of doomed romanticism to which Carroll's followers are in thrall. The cultists are acting on a plan worked out by a brilliant mind over an extended period. Many of them have been living phony lives as strategically placed "sleepers" for years, just waiting to be activated so they can carry out their part in Carroll's grand scheme. They could be anywhere. They could be anyone. The viewer is never allowed to lose sight of the fact that they are, at all times, out there somewhere, plotting and carrying out something bad. Integrated into the narrative are tight, economical flashbacks, presented as the memories of the various players in the tale. They're never gratuitous digressions--they're always triggered by events in the present and flesh out the characters, filling in their respective backgrounds. Prior to its premier, a major selling-point of the show was that it marked the television series debut of Kevin Bacon and as Ryan, he's as rock-solid as he's always been, but the show sports a top-shelf cast all the way around.

Not everything about THE FOLLOWING's freshman season worked though. After a great opening salvo of episodes, it made some wrong turns and, for a time, lost its way.

One of the downsides of attempting an open-ended killer thriller is that the less plausible elements that crop up in most such tales--elements that, as long as they aren't overly distracting, can be regarded as a minor flaw in an otherwise good feature film--can become cumulative in a serial. THE FOLLOWING is a fantasy and contrary to the assertions of some mouthy internet critics, it need not hew to documentary realism, but when it comes to putting an audience on this kind of roller-coaster, a great deal of care should be taken to avoid letting things go too far off the tracks in terms of believability, and, unfortunately, this care wasn't always present. The first major credibility hole was blown through the show in the 6th episode ("The Fall"). Overall, it's a great piece of work but its conclusion sinks it like a stone. The background is that a trio of cultists have kidnapped Carroll's son Joey, swiping him from his mother's home, and have been holding him in a remote farmhouse. When, in this episode, its location is uncovered, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies move in, completely surrounding the place. Ludicrously, the cultists are still able to escape with both the boy and relative ease (though one is badly wounded). This led to a tidal-wave of complaints among internet reviewers about the comic incompetence of the feds on the show, which snowballed to the point that anything that could even remotely be interpreted as less than omnicompetent behavior by law enforcement was used to prop up a growing caricature of THE FOLLOWING as a show wherein cretinous cops who couldn't catch a cold in a blizzard were an integral part of the premise. A large number of the complaints that emerged from this were legitimate. An even larger number were not. The damage was done though. That caricature became, from that point, the prism through which a lot of viewers saw the series.[3]

An even more serious misstep occurs in the very next episode, "Let Me Go," wherein it's revealed that Carroll's cult is communally camped out in a sprawling mansion! As bad an idea as that is on its own, given their activities, the cultists, when filing out of the house to welcome Carroll (who has escaped from prison a second time), are absurdly vast in number--far more followers than is either remotely plausible or necessary. THE FOLLOWING is essentially a personal revenge story. Joe Carroll isn't just angry at Hardy for catching him; he's burned that Hardy struck up a brief romance with his ex-wife Claire after his arrest. It became serious. Hardy resists relationships. Claire loved him and became the love of his life. He gave her up for what he thought were noble reasons but he still loves her and Carroll hates him for it. Carroll put together his cult to enact revenge on Hardy, to murder innocents and make Hardy feel responsibility for it, to make Hardy absolutely miserable. To break him. Carroll is even making a book of it--"our sequel," he calls it (he refers to the horrible missions with which he assigns his followers as "chapters"). When Carroll is revealed to have an entire army camped out in a huge mansion, this immediately suggests there's something much bigger in the works, that we're no longer seeing the intimate story of personal revenge it had been up to that point. The fundamental nature of the tale is altered and it's revealed to be a different one, one to which viewers have no connection and in which they have no investment.

Worse still, the writers continued down this path in subsequent episodes, yet that much bigger event to which they make such a show of building never happens and its substance, if there ever was any, is never revealed. Cultist Roderick, who is, at the time, Carroll's right-hand man, urges Carroll to order the cult to begin this larger scheme, whatever it is. He stresses this, tells Carroll the people assembled at the compound have given up everything for him, that they're quite anxious to get started, that delay is causing a morale problem. The cult is revealed to be involved with nut-right militia people who are providing cultists with paramilitary training. The cult is stockpiling weapons and explosives. As all of this is playing out over multiple episodes, none of it seems connected to anything we've been shown--a fact even the characters are made to comment upon within the story--and as the story continues, none of it ever is connected either. The FBI finds and seizes a cult training compound and whatever grand plan of which it was supposed to play a part is a plot thread that is just sort of allowed to peter out. Were the series' writers simply burning through screentime with all of this? Were they toying with ideas, and unsure of how to proceed?

The latter seems a strong possibility, as the writing, during this stretch of the series, became quite spotty in general. The period from about episodes 10-13 is the nadir of season 1. The series still manages some great--a few even masterly--moments, but it becomes very unfocused, generally mediocre and often quite stupid--mostly a chore, to watch, rather than the joy it had been earlier. The final two episodes, though encumbered by the baggage of what came immediately before, right the ship, to an extent, and are much sharper. A good cliffhanger to end the season.

So THE FOLLOWING season 1 is sort of a mixed bag. It can be dumb, uneven, wildly implausible and even dull. At the same time, it has an intriguing premise, a rock-solid cast, it's well-paced, features lots of twists of plot that keep the audience guessing and its technical merits are uniformly superb.

Its greatest strength, though, is that it manages to get on screen one scene after another of remarkable power, intensity, audacity, originality, ugliness, even, at times, brilliance. The series, at the outset, had a real edge to it, one it never entirely lost. You saw things on it almost every week that had never appeared on a mainstream television screen. At one point, the trio of cultists who have taken Carroll's young son send the boy's mother a video wherein they're gleefully teaching the child to kill things. The three, Jacob, Emma and Paul, are the subject of much attention and find themselves in a twisted love triangle. Jacob's big, embarrassing secret, which he's concealed from his murderous girlfriend (Emma), is that he's never killed anyone. When Paul, who is in on this secret, feels left out after Jacob and Emma reunite, he kidnaps a girl from a local convenience store and ties her in the basement for his own convenience. It's quickly decided she must go, and Jacob, being a virgin, is assigned the task of carving her up. He just can't bring himself to do it and releases her instead. The other two hunt her down as she tries to escape but rather than finishing her off, they simply tie her in the basement again for Jacob to kill later. Jacob finds Emma and Paul in the shower together. "We're not giving up on you," Emma assures him, and they share a group hug beneath the warm spray. A wonderfully twisted moment.[4] Jacob later does finally get to kill someone, but it isn't someone he'd have ever wanted to kill and it provides another incredibly powerful emotional--and transgressive--scene. Ryan gets his share of these big moments as well. His background, as filled in via flashbacks, reveal him to be the kind of tormented Romantic hero Carroll says he is, perpetually surrounded by death. Cursed by it, even. He gave up the love of his life because, he says, he thought he'd be a perpetual reminder of the period of madness through which she'd just passed with Joe Carroll. The real reason, which he never directly admits, is that he gave her up because he feared being close to him would doom her. Something as simple as a moment wherein Claire is trying, rather desperately, to talk Ryan into letting her make some breakfast for him is invested with a remarkable degree of depth and feeling after their relationship has been explained. Even when the series was scraping bottom, it threw in a remarkable series of flashbacks of Ryan, as a teen, witnessing his father's death at the hands of a junkie who was robbing a convenience store. What young Ryan did about this (and has never revealed to anyone) is another jaw-dropper moment. These scenes appear throughout the series and become the things one remembers most of all from this season.

The strengths of THE FOLLOWING are significant. In my view, they outweigh its legitimate weaknesses, though after that rough patch of episodes I'm not sure how strenuously I'd argue against someone who disagreed. Its future is questionable--one of its legitimate weaknesses is that the current storyline probably won't prove sustainable over a long haul of many seasons, particularly after the events of the season finale--but if this can be said to be a new Golden Age of Television, THE FOLLOWING has done enough to earn a slot among the age's noteworthies. It isn't perfect, but it doesn't suck.



[1] Though not all; see ELEMENTARY on CBS and HANNIBAL on NBC--both currently matched against one another on Thursday nights.

[2] Among the best of current tv are AMC's HELL ON WHEELS, MAD MEN, and, most especially, BREAKING BAD (perhaps the single best thing television has ever produced), the History Channel's VIKINGS, and A&E's BATES MOTEL.

[3] The show never hits that extreme a level of implausibility again, but there were far too many moments that abused the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief.

[4] Paul and Jacob are revealed to be bisexual and their sexuality is used as an example of their twisted, evil nature, which is a typically negative portrayal of queerness. THE FOLLOWING later redeems itself, though, by making the viewers care about them and feel for them when their situation turns bleak.