Fox’s announcement last year that Kevin Bacon had signed to star in The Following, a TV series about an FBI agent pursuing a serial killer, generated legitimate enthusiasm among TV fans, and the teasers for the show looked suitably creepy and disturbing.
The premise sounded genuinely intriguing: Joe Carroll, an imprisoned killer of 14 young women, has assembled a cultlike group of followers to continue killing in his name, and Ryan Hardy, the retired, damaged FBI agent who caught him, is pressed back into service to assist in tracking and stopping the followers.
The first couple of episodes managed to create an unnerving atmosphere of fear and dread, but the setup quickly turned into a laughable array of absurd twists thrown at the audience. Carroll’s followers had embedded themselves everywhere, so episodes became a guessing game: who would suddenly whip out a knife or gun and kill someone? Every law enforcement agency from a rural sheriff’s department to the FBI looked utterly clueless and incompetent, unable to identify or locate the (admittedly high-functioning) lunatics in their midst. It’s useful to remember that The Following was created by Kevin Williamson, the man behind the Scream movie franchise, among other things. He’s made a pretty decent career out of knowing how to push the audience’s buttons.The frequent plot twists were meant to keep viewers off balance, but the show was often in danger of sinking under the weight of them.Beyond the implausible plotting and nagging logistical questions that were left unanswered, how have these people managed to gain so much access to everything? Why was a deranged, dangerous guy like Carroll even allowed to have visitors? The Following became a victim of its own story structure. The frequent plot twists were meant to keep viewers off balance, but the show was often in danger of sinking under the weight of them.
The Following was intended to be a battle of wits between Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll. Viewers were supposed to see Carroll the way his followers did: as sympathetic and charismatic, a man capable of uniting his acolytes in pursuit of their goal. But Hardy was so dour and closed-off that we couldn’t make any sort of emotional connection with him, and Carroll ended up coming across as just a pretentious jerk, an egotistical nutbag whose ultimate goal was merely to cause more suffering.
The season was always heading toward a final confrontation between Joe and Ryan, but when Fox announced that the show had been renewed for a second season I began to wonder what sort of season-ender viewers could expect. TV shows have a tendency to dissemble in the face of finality.
So, Joe went kablooey in the boathouse… right? We were told that partial remains were found and the FBI positively identified him. But come on, who really believes that? We didn’t see Joe die onscreen, and faking one’s death is a well-worn trope of TV and movie storytelling. And crazy pixie-faced Emma is still out there too.
So Joe will likely resurface at some point next season, perhaps disfigured from burns he sustained in the explosion, to resume his campaign of terror. I don’t care; I’ve lost interest, and I don’t like the idea that this story could end up dragging on for another season, or longer. (I had a flashback to season one of AMC’s The Killing: oh, you want to know who killed Rosie Larsen, because it’s the only reason you stuck around for the entire season? Sorry, we were never going to reveal that in season one, sucker.)
I would have preferred some genuine closure, but instead we got another tired cliché, a cliffhanger, and a preposterous one at that: Ryan takes Claire back to his apartment—in Brooklyn. Wouldn’t Claire have wanted to go back to Virginia immediately to see her son? But Ryan’s neighbor/boink buddy Molly, whom Ryan never figured out was one of Joe’s followers, is hiding in his apartment waiting, and she stabs both of them.For all its twists, the show ended up feeling predictable and calculated, and also, for all its noise and drama, a failure.For all its twists, the show ended up feeling predictable and calculated, and also, for all its noise and drama, a failure. I watched the final few minutes of the season not with anxiety and dread, but with disgust. It was like I’d been the victim of a practical joke that took 15 weeks to be played on me. I didn’t think this was going to be one of those shows. I expected more, which I guess is why I ended up feeling let down by The Following.
I thought about the time I’ve spent watching Breaking Bad, how it’s been the source of more dropped-jaw, holy-shit moments than any other TV show I’ve ever watched, and every one of them was absolutely earned through superior storytelling.
Then I think about The Following, and how I ended up mainly feeling bored and disappointed with it. As viewers we enjoy the thrill of surprise and unpredictability, but we don’t like being manipulated.
But one thing I’ve learned from many years of watching TV is that you don’t have to keep watching; it’s okay to walk away from a show that lets you down.