Fox’s profoundly disturbing serial killer drama “The Following” is unarguably the boldest new series of the broadcast season. In many ways it is also the most problematic, but everyone involved had to know that controversy and criticism would come with such extreme material.
If this show had turned out to be just more TV schlock, then it would be easy to ignore, if not condemn, as many critics have been happy to do. But the acting, production values and direction that are on proud display in this project demand respect, and with that comes a deeper consideration of the program at hand. Series lead Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy, a tormented former FBI agent called out of miserable retirement to help thwart the plans of an especially sinister serial killer he apprehended several years earlier, must already be considered a front-runner for every major television acting award.
Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the industry. Due to truly unfortunate timing, “The Following” has found itself at the center of the important debate about violence in the media that came to an immediate boil after the school shootings last month in Newtown, Conn.
It doesn’t necessarily deserve the distinction, at least not where gun violence is concerned. I only recently watched the second, third and fourth episodes that Fox provided for advance media consideration (and I saw the pilot, which I first watched last June, for a second time on a giant screen at Fox’s gala premiere for the show last week at the New York Public Library), and with the gruesome details of each hour still fresh in my mind, I’m comfortable saying that there is much more high-action gunplay in average episodes of numerous popular crime dramas than I have seen in the first four installments of “The Following” combined. I’m certainly not an expert in such matters, but it would seem that if there is a connection between fictional and real-life gun violence, it likely has something to do with gunfire itself.
All that said, the show ought to be a lightning rod for those who object to the escalation of brutal violence against women in contemporary entertainment. Yes, men are killed in “The Following,” but the number of butchered females far outdistances that of murdered males, and the often-sickening details surrounding the killings of the women will be a turn-off to anyone who has had his or her fill of such stuff.
Many things may impress me about “The Following,” which I have previously cited as the best new broadcast drama of the season. But with each passing episode, it’s difficult to move beyond the unrelenting misery and sadism that informs virtually every minute of this show. I admire quality as much as the next critic, but by the end of episode four the horror of it all was beginning to wear me down. At this point an awful lot of innocent people have met terrible ends, while Ryan has been tormented and tortured to a greater degree than any other character I can think of from any other television series ever, including certain losers on “Lost.”
The seemingly endless sadistic elements of the story can be suffocating. To state the most obvious example, in the pilot it wasn’t enough for Joe Carroll (a scary-good James Purefoy), the serial killer and cult leader at the center of the escalating madness, to carve up a pretty young woman named Sara when he first attacked her nine years earlier, leaving her horribly scarred and fearful for her safety for what would be the rest of her life. No, Joe had to arrange for two of his many psychotic acolytes to pose as Sara’s neighbors for several years and earn her love and trust, and then have them savagely abduct her (leaving much blood behind) and deliver her to him.
We learn later that Joe killed her slowly, but only after he removed her eyes by cutting out each of the seven muscles that hold eyeballs in their sockets. Further, Joe recorded her screams during the cutting of each of those muscles and delightedly played them back as Ryan lay bloodied and beaten under Sara’s eyeless corpse.
Do people have a hearty appetite for such horror? Series creator Kevin Williamson and his team must think so – and so must the folks at Fox – because in order for this show to continue for months, let alone years, Joe and his followers have to be free to continue to slay innocent people and torment the luckless Ryan.
Also, the federal agents and other law enforcers on the show (who sometimes come off as strangely ineffective) must remain several steps behind the murderous crazies or the story will be over. The bad guys can suffer setbacks, but they can’t lose or the show will end. That’s certainly a unique challenge for all involved. I’m anxious to see more, but I’m not necessarily looking forward to the experience.