Nothing good can come from a show that starts off with the opening chords of Marilyn Manson's grim and gothed remake of "Sweet Dreams," the anthem of teenage Hot Topic shoppers everywhere and a soundtrack staple for torture-porn movies and anything else that's trying to say, "Hey you, tortured soul, this is gonna be so creepy!" But that's the tone that was set by the debut of Fox's new drama The Following, network television's witless answer to gritty cable dramas that do it a lot better. But hey, if you enjoy carefully mixed corn syrup and red dye, then great, enjoy the show!
The basic premise follows former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon, smearing his six-degrees-in-a-lead-role all over your television for the first time) on the hunt for a serial killer named Joe Carroll (Rome's James Purefoy), who Hardy once put away in the big house. See, the pilot started with Carroll springing himself from prison by slicing the throats of some prison guards and narrowly escaping the six-inch perimeter laid out after the jail bosses figured out what happened. And while Carroll was in prison, he spent a lot of time on the computer in the prison library as a Charlie Manson with Chat Roulette. Except instead of dangling his wang out, he recruited impressionable sickos through the intertubes (on Tumblr, with the hashtag #aspiringmurderers? Via www.soyouwannabeaserialkiller.biz?) to follow his teachings of the beauty to be found in death, as inspired by his idol, Edgar Allen Poe. As we learned at the end of the episode, Carroll had been planning this big break from prison all along, and he elaborately put his new acolytes in motion years ago, instructing them to pose as a gay couple and a nanny so they'd be in a position to kill the one girl who got away and kidnap Carroll's son.
What. The. Fuck. ?.
The black cop said it best after finding the dead cop and the bloody tag that read "Nevermore," in a scene that came halfway through the pilot: "I'm not buying two men would pretend to be gay and shack up next to a woman because some nutjob told them to."
That was the only time the episode even dabbled in admitting how ludicrous The Following's premise is, and I didn't buy it either, but in the world of the show, preposterous logic isn't sold, it's practically given away in Costco-sized chunks. The series portrays Carroll's followers as people who simply joined his cult, without ever going into detail as to why. The only explanations we've gotten so far are "He used the Internet" and "He had a lot of blogs," with the show hoping we're all fine with the idea before changing the subject with scenes of expired, eyeless babes. But the coolest part of a show about a cult is seeing the seduction of the idiots who are willing to join, and because none of us are stupid enough to join a cult ourselves, it's important for The Following to show us how Carroll managed to sucker people into faking gay and killing themselves with sharp objects. No matter how sexy a British accent can be or how handsome a professional murderer is, we, as an audience, need a look at exactly how this guy was able to pull off such a feat. I can barely get my wife to do what I want, and she's bound to do those things by law! Wives, amirite? (*crotch scratch* *man grunt*) Anyway, the fact that none of this was addressed early on left a lingering doubt that was difficult to shake. Perhaps we'll get more info later on, or perhaps we're just supposed to believe in the power of Purefoy.
It's also shocking to see that series creator Kevin Williamson, who wrote the clever and astutely self-aware horror film Scream, would fill The Following with the same horror clichés he spoofed before. Hardy's the alcoholic FBI agent pulled back in to the job. Moments of silence telegraph something jumping out at you, spoiling the shock. The baby-faced folks who you least expect are the most guilty. And worst of all, the charismatic serial killer is himself a student of a literary figure. The idea of the self-righteous, intelligent, and artistic serial killer is old and worn, and in Carroll we have pieces of film's most famous mass murderers rubber-cemented together to create a character so familiar that he's uninteresting.
But the Edgar Allen Poe stuff might be The Following's biggest crime, as it tries to bring deep meaning to the show's master of terror. Hardy at one point screams, "Nevermore! The Raven! Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!" as if we're supposed to go, "Ahhhhh!" It's a poor attempt to validate the gruesome acts and stupid excerpts written on the skin of victims. But just to make sure we know Carroll is well-versed in Poe, The Following drops Poe quotes at every opportunity until you can't fucking stand him, the poor guy. Painting "Nevermore" on the wall with a victim's innards does what, exactly? Shows that Carroll once read "The Raven"? Come on, TV serial killers, you can do better than that.
Feel free to skip this paragraph because I'm gonna whine about serial killers for a second. I've always thought there's an inherent problem with serial killers in television. Good TV villains have clear intent and purpose behind their actions, enough to even earn some sense of compassion or at least understanding from the audience. Gus Fring was protecting his business. Ben Linus wanted to protect the island. The Governor has been reborn in a seat of power and wants to keep it. You hate the guy, but at least you know why he does what he does. TV serial killers are demented people who kill for their own perversion, and it's hard for us to understand that. (Note: If it's NOT hard for you to understand that, please twisty-tie your hands together and turn yourself into the police.) In television, an adversary that does "it" just because he's insane simply isn't as sexy or sustainable as someone with legitimate motivation. That's why most senseless crazies are reserved for henchmen roles, where they belong and work well, while the real big bad is a man with purpose. From what I can tell, Carroll is only doing all of this because he feels like it. He's a twisted weirdo with no morals. The Following's message is "Carroll bad! Hardy good!" Things are as black and white as a zebra and all the complexity is saved for figuring out how exactly Carroll was able to convince regular people to commit murder for him. (One-note deranged serial killers can work in movies, because the case is closed after 90 minutes. Manhunter is a great example of this. But television is a different beast.)
But what of the violence and gore? That's all people seem to want to talk about with this show. It would be hypocritical of me to say the violence and gore in The Following is too much, given that my DVR is loaded with Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story. I don't have a problem with the violence in The Following as much as other reviewers do, and after some deliberation, I think it's at least partially relevant to the story being told. While the other shows I mentioned use violence to set a tone and illustrate what characters must do to survive, The Following uses its violence to show us just how bad of a dude Carroll is. I understand that. But how long will it be until the message is just repetitive? It's not that the violence in The Following is any worse than Jax shooting someone execution-style in Sons of Anarchy, it's that the intentions behind it are different, and this goes back to serial killers on television. Jax is protecting his turf or getting revenge. Carroll is just being an asshole. He's not doing it to survive or to build an empire or to win the Iron Throne, and that's why some people are decrying this purposeless violence over the slashings and shootings of other shows. But more importantly, I think when a show itself isn't that good, the violence in it just looks ugly and sticks out.
And I think that's okay with Williamson and Fox because blood and gore is all the show wants anyway. How else would you explain the nonsensical premise and the Poe-verdoses of literary mumbo-jumbo? The pilot stitched together a story whose only job was to keep Hardy one step behind Carroll so he stumbled upon well-prepared murder scene after well-prepared murder scene, and I bet you a million dollars that future episodes of this baseless shockfest will be pretty much the same.
– I'll give credit where credit's due for part of Williamson's idea. By creating a cult of serial killers that takes orders from one serial killer, he's found a way to add longevity to a show about a serial killer. There's also the chance that anyone at any time can be revealed as a disciple of Carroll's, and you can bet your ass that a few of Hardy's coworkers have copies of Poe's work on their nightstands. That will probably make for the most interesting part of the show.
– Just a reminder that part of Bacon's stipulation to star on a TV series was to keep seasons of The Killing to a maximum of 15 episodes per season.
– I know the reviews out there are mixed, so there's clearly entertainment value here for a lot of people, and the show could become a hit.
– This idea of "sleeper serial killers" rips off the idea of undercover terrorist cells, where it works.
– So Hardy saw a picture of the gay couple in front of a lighthouse bed and breakfast, tied it to some of Poe's unfinished work, Google-mapped it, and found out where Carroll was hiding? Sure, okay. Hey Carroll, if you want to be caught, why not just send him a text message with your location?
– One lesson I learned: If I ever butcher a lot of dogs as practice for becoming a serial killer, the "Lost Dog" flyers make for good and very incriminating wallpaper.
– The drama between the nanny and the "gay" dudes has the potential for limitless accidental comedy (and trust me, it's there in Episode 2).
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom