The Following

One of the reasons I stopped watching Criminal Minds, other than the fact that it was so relentlessly dark, even for me, is that every episode was pretty much the same. You could watch the clock and know exactly what plot twist was coming up based on how much time was left in the episode. Arrest somebody 20 minutes in? They’re not the serial killer. Find a startling piece of evidence against someone with ten minutes left? That’s your guy. Also, someone will be kidnapped at about the 30 minute mark and need to be rescued. Every time. Its formula showed through too quickly for me, and I grew tired of it fast.

Which brings us to Fox’s new FBI vs. serial killers drama The Following. Right away, it differentiates itself from procedurals like Criminal Minds or CSI by taking a serial approach. The premise that a jailed serial killer is commanding a small army of other serial killers to do his bidding allows the program to have its cake and eat it, too: A new serial killer can be hunted every week, which keeps the premise fresh, but there’s a continuing story arc as well, which keeps viewers coming back. Series creator Kevin Williamson has done his homework. Williamson is best known for the Scream movies, of course, but he’s no stranger to TV, with series like Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries under his belt. Thankfully, there’s nothing teen-drama about The Following. This is a very grown up show, with all the gore and implied violence that entails. With multiple images of blood-soaked murder victims with their eyes removed, it’s not for the weak of stomach.

It’s also a cliché-fest. You can practically tick them off a list as you watch any given episode. Alcoholic ex-agent (Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy) called back to work on the same case that ruined him? Check. Tough-talking FBI agents who don’t quite trust him? Check. (Including one played by Shawn Ashmore, Iceman in the X-Men movies!) Hyper-intelligent, literate serial killer in captivity (James Purefoy as Joe Carroll) doling out cryptic clues to our hero? Check. This time our serial killer is obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, not fava beans and chianti, though at least he’s not killing people in emulation of scenes out of Poe’s stories like in that John Cusak movie nobody cared about last year. And just for good measure, does the villain have a British accent? Check.

There seems to be a rule that every serial drama since Lost must include flashbacks that explain events or the way people are acting, and The Following is no exception, flashing back regularly to 2004 to recount how Ryan tracked down and captured Joe the first time. And also how he had an affair with Joe’s wife (Natalie Zea as Claire Matthews), because this is a TV show and they need plotlines, dammit. Anyway, the whole thing is overwrought, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable, really. It’s riveting, if not exactly smart. Much of that has to do with Kevin Bacon. He holds the camera in every scene, somehow elevating the material just by squinting at people and growling his dialogue, no matter how clichéd the actual words.

It’s also legitimately scary at times, something we rarely see on TV. The scene with all the Poe masks in episode two was the tipping point for Alexa. After that she noped out of the series (“Nope!”) for good. Too scary, she said. I guess that makes it my kind of show.

Unfortunately, The Following suffers from a common TV drama malady these days. Namely, it may be too high concept to survive. A lot of TV dramas that have come and gone recently have buckled under the weight of their own concepts, as if they were movie pitches first. (“A nuclear sub goes renegade rather than bomb Pakistan!”) So many would have made great, or at least interesting, films. As TV series, though, they couldn’t last. Their concepts couldn’t stretch beyond a few episodes and remain interesting. The Following risks, well, following in those same footsteps. Will the show be able to sustain interest beyond a handful of episodes? Is there any way something like this can last more a single season? Time will tell. But for right now, I’m enjoying The Following and recommend it to anyone who likes a good (and gory) hunt-for-the-serial-killer story.

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