I’m all for the maturation of broadcast television content. In fact, I can’t imagine how broadcast series entertainment will survive in the years to come if it doesn’t continue to push boundaries … and if advertisers don’t continue to support bolder programming … and if the FCC doesn’t loosen up a bit and acknowledge the realities of new and old media alike. Still, I have to admit that recent episodes of Fox’s daring new drama “The Following” and advance screeners of NBC’s upcoming “Hannibal” have me wondering, how did this material even get on broadcast television? And why isn’t anyone kicking up a fuss about it?
To be clear, I’m not looking for an outcry of any kind against either show. I’m just curious why there hasn’t been any blowback against the consistent envelope-pushing of “The Following,” which may be the most disturbing broadcast drama I have ever seen, and I’m anxious to see how “Hannibal” fares with its similarly twisted subject matter. Maybe it isn’t worth thinking about. After all, kids and teenagers are growing up watching and embracing such crazy-violent and horrific basic cable fare as “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story,” generally with the approval of their parents.
As much as I’d like to continue supporting so daring a show, though, it has occurred to me that I might decide to stop watching “The Following.” I’m impressed by its production values and the caliber of its many fine performances, but I’m not sure I want to continue taking in its signature violence, terror and depravity. I’m growing tired of watching good people suffer and/or die. Some of the bad guys have been killed off, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the sinister scheme of things.
I’m already feeling the same way about “Hannibal,” which is equally dark and nasty. Certain scenes in its first few episodes are positively revolting to watch. But, like “The Following,” it is obviously produced by people with a great deal of talent and consuming passion for what they do.
The truth is, there is little in either of these shows that hasn’t already been seen or done in the riotously violent procedural crime dramas that have proven so popular since the turn of the millennium -- especially on CBS, home of the still vital “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and the often-abhorrent “Criminal Minds.” Perhaps what I’m reacting to in “The Following” (and in “Hannibal”) is the dark tone of the show and the intensity with which it tells its story of murder, madness, helplessness and defeat.
Most crime series have strong and smart law enforcers at the center of their action, and many of those characters have senses of humor that allow them (and the viewer) some much-needed distraction from the ugliness of their work. But the law enforcers on “The Following” plainly did not graduate at the top of their classes, which makes it all the more unnerving, and they hardly even smile, let alone say anything amusing.
Then again, maybe that’s what’s most valuable about this show. It doesn’t turn away from the toll that violence and depravity take on those who are tasked with containing it -- not to mention its victims -- and because the killers continue to elude the authorities from week to week, viewers share in the growing fear and frustration of a dangerous situation.
As far back as last June, I designated “The Following” as my choice for the best new broadcast series of the 2012-13 season. I stand by that, simply because its overall quality and boldness haven’t wavered. But it has developed certain narrative annoyances that could prove detrimental in the long haul. For example, serial killer and cult leader Joe Carroll (played to award-worthy perfection by James Purefoy) appears to have limitless resources with which to address any situation large or small that might compromise his murderous ways and his relentless torment of former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (an equally impressive Kevin Bacon). It seems that during almost a decade in prison, Carroll was able to cobble together dozens of followers and station them in tiny towns and major cities all over the Eastern seaboard (and maybe elsewhere). Further, he supplied them with whatever equipment they may need, from assault weapons to advanced computer and surveillance systems to safe houses -- to freaking helicopters! -- should local, state or federal authorities threaten to compromise their murderous mission. Money is no object in carrying out their master’s master plan.
Compounding my unease, “The Following” in recent weeks has been at its most compelling when it has focused on the inter-personal dynamics between Carroll and his killers, whether they have been having sex, sacrificing themselves or performing mercy killings on each other. This really is fascinating stuff, and as far as I can tell, it is totally original and new to TV. That makes it harder for me to express reservations about “The Following,” but in other ways it has me thinking that maybe this show is something I no longer care to keep in my life. Regardless, I’ll give it this: “The Following” challenges me like no other current program on broadcast television, and for that it deserves special respect.