'The Following': Someone Kill the Serial Killer

The Atlantic

Last night Fox debuted its big new midseason show The Following, a bloody serial killer mystery thriller starring Kevin Bacon and created by none other than Dawson's Creek fabulist Kevin Williamson. OK, to be fair, Williamson has of course dealt in horror before, writing films like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. (And creating The Vampire Diaries which, in varying ways, should count as horror.) Though with this new show he isn't going for arch parody or self-aware winking. No, his aims are toward the moody and the literary, drawing from the well of Se7en in an attempt to create something thoughtful and baroquely unsettling. The frequent gore and dreary nihilism is a philosophical comment on the ills of modern society; isn't it twisted how twisted we all are? This is a boring, dumb question that the hacks of film and television have been asking us since David Fincher's operatically grim film first rattled us nearly two decades ago. And boy do I wish they would stop.

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The setup of The Following is as boring and uninventive, while trying to be intelligent, as anything from The Bone Collector to season six of Dexter. Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who drinks too much and frowns a lot and who is called back into service when his big get, the Hannibal Lecter to his Will Graham, escapes prison in bloody fashion. This super serial killer is Joe Carroll, a former professor turned Poe-obsessed murderer played by James Purefoy with the same showy intensity of many other fine actors forced to hork out hackneyed pseudo-philosophy in these kinds of roles. The only surprising thing about this supposedly wicked and fascinating character is that his name isn't Sebastian Kane or Damien Cole or some other evil-but-elegant-sounding name often foisted upon us by these stupid things. I'll give Williamson points for at least keeping things simple in the name department.

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Hardy caught Carroll while he was trying to murder a college coed named Sarah (Maggie Grace) some ten years ago. Carroll now wants to finish the "art" project he started, and in the pilot episode it's up to Hardy to stop him. The trouble is, it's not just Carroll who's bloodthirsty. Over his years in prison, he's assembled an army of devotees who are all now working to pull off a grand new literature-as-reality master plan. These serial killer cells could be anywhere, could be anyone. That's the show's pitch to us; we'll give you something different week after week, not just the same guy going after people. Carroll, for the time being, has been apprehended again, Purefoy left to do stern pas de deux in interrogation rooms with Bacon and little else. (For now, of course.) Each episode will likely see us wrangling with another of Carroll's minions, all while some grander season-long narrative takes shape. I can see why this concept piqued Fox's interest; it solves the problem of serial vs. episodic television by mashing the two together, like many a great series — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias — has done before it. Too bad, then, that the execution is so slipshod and pathetically cliched.

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The show's worst sin is the Carroll character, whose motivations and thought processes are as corny and unintelligently pretentious as anything in a Christopher Rice novel. He likes Edgar Allan Poe, see, and there's some blah blah about the death of a woman being the most beautiful thing in the world. So he leaves literary clues and allusions in his crime scenes, which the supposedly brilliant Hardy interprets for us like an overeager but not particularly bright college freshman. Meaning we get clunkers like "eyes are the windows to the soul" (that's why he cuts them out of his victims, y'see) and references to The Pit and the Pendulum. Ugh, didn't we just do this? The worst thing about Williamson's writing is how lazy it is, as if we dumb idiots at home will be so cowed by a fancy person talkin' about fancy books that all Williamson has to do is glance at the Sparknotes and get to typing. (Remember when Lost had people reading Hume and Locke? People will follow you if you go there, Kevin.) Well, I'm choosing to believe that he's underestimating his audience rather than suggest the alternative, which is a lot direr; if Kevin Williamson thinks this is smart writing then I'm not sure that Kevin Williamson knows what smart is. The stretches of last night's episode that were supposed to hook us in with all the ain't-it-nifty-and-cool academic detective work were downright embarrassing. (And vaguely offensive to academics? As if you must be crazy to devote your life to books and theories?) At one point a character said "There's the rub," and I fully expected Hardy so say "That's from Hamlet, it means 'that's the problem.'" He didn't, thank god. But it wouldn't have been out of place.

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There were at least a couple of semi-obvious twists that landed well last night, namely that people close to Sarah and to Carroll's ex-wife (who is also Hardy's ex-lover) Claire (Natalie Zea, who should be back on Justified) were acolyte plants with grim missions in mind. Those characters — a fake gay couple that befriended Sarah, Claire's mousy nanny — are vaguely interesting, and I'm glad that they don't seem to be simple one-episode entities. Beyond that, there's little to look forward to. Bacon looks mostly bored and a little embarrassed, while even Purefoy's innate dark charm can't conquer the starchy writing. All the blood and violence stands out as both an uninspired attempt to seem unflinching and credible, and, quite honestly, as an insult to decency. What good is all this human suffering when it's in the service of such a hack job? Are we supposed to be more scared or more titillated? Does Fox or anyone involved really care either way? It's all splatter meant to cheaply entice, badly dressed up as something serious and fancy. What Se7en got right was the weary tone of Andrew Kevin Walker's script, the way it forced us to finally be repulsed rather than intrigued by the world's ghastly sickness. The Following's worldview is flimsy and unenlightened by comparison. A crazy guy read a few books. SpooOoOooky. With Carooll they're going for a cross between Se7en's John Doe and The Silence of Lamb's Hannibal Lecter. Instead they've got a cheesy jerk-off with a slightly used library card. If a show wanted to be truly frightening, it'd be about the horrible mundanity and seeming ordinariness of real-life serial killers, not this criminal mastermind game-playing. Hey Hardy, what's that quote about the banality of evil?

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All the blood spilled on The Following is a total waste. The work put in mostly for naught. In some ways, Williamson has inadvertently repeated his wonderful Scream trick. What a laughable sendup of a tiresome genre The Following is! I mean, the show is bookended by the sick and twisted strains of Marilyn Manson's "Sweet Dreams" — a '90s relic that's about as spooky as a Sisqo song. When that's a show's idea of telegraphing depravity in 2013, it's gotta be a joke, right? Trouble is, Scream revitalized the slasher genre. The Following, on the other hand, makes a pretty compelling case to lock the serial killer up and throw away the key.

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