The TV Doctor #1: The Following

Patient: “The Following”
Network: FOX
Season: 1

Ultra-grim crime procedural that features Kevin Bacon cashing a paycheck and James Purefoy hamming it up.

The Chart
Began its run with high ratings and even higher expectations, only to instantly fall on its face creatively – and get worse as it went on. Ratings stayed relatively high early on, cratered as the season progressed, then ticked back up for the last couple weeks. ‘The Following’ is renewed for a second season and in no danger of cancellation (especially with Kevin Bacon attached), but what was billed as the series that would bring the “cable TV” sensibility to network television has become a critical laughingstock.

-Consistently makes viewers feel miserable about their lives through its routine and unapologetic fetishizing of violence.
-Steadfastly committed to shoehorning in Edgar Allen Poe references despite an ongoing zero percent success rate of making them feel clever, smart, or appropriate.
-Paints a ludicrously offensive portrayal of law enforcement and government as being broadly incompetent.
-Regularly features utterly agonizing monologues, mostly from Purefoy.
-Curiously interested in the nuances of the social lives of serial killers; not in a way that provides insight into their psyche, but in a superficial “Real World” kind of way.
-You’d be hard-pressed to find a season of television that featured more gruesome, detailed deaths that made less of an impact on the larger story or impression with the audience.
-So depressing that it even wore Kevin Bacon down. After carrying the first few episodes, he’s mailed in his performance hard.
-Deadly serious in tone from start to finish. Apparently allergic to anything light-hearted or humorous, unless you count the unintentional comedy of Bacon intensely holding a gun and pointing it at everyone.

Diagnosis & Treatment
Keeping with the medical conceit of this column, I think the most direct route for ‘The Following’ to take is amputation: get rid of James Purefoy. It’s not that Purefoy is a bad actor, but he’s been unable to do anything interesting with one of the most poorly-written roles in recent memory. We’re long past the point of no return with Joe Carroll, who is and forever will be far more laughable than scary. Killing Carroll would provide a much-needed landmark moment for the series, and give ‘The Following’ the opportunity to craft a more credible “big bad.”

The reality is that that’s not happening, so we’re going to have to treat the problem as best we can (heavy antibiotics!). Some reasonable steps would be…

-Drop any and all Poe material. No explanation needs to be given, everyone will just be happy that it’s gone.
-Focus more on episode-specific stories. It’s a noble goal to tell a coherent season-long story on network television, and in an ideal world, every crime drama could do it. But the reality is that some can’t. ‘The Following’ can’t. The premise of the series easily allows for the creation of episode-specific baddies, and limiting the scope of most episodes would allow the series to cut some of the excruciating exposition scenes and Joe Carroll monologues. Before ‘The Following’ starts focusing on anything more ambitious, it needs to become a credible crop drama.
-Extensive therapy may be required to rid this show of the idea that Ryan Hardy must solve every case BY HIMSELF. It’s okay for fellow law enforcement officers to help out, it really is. In fact, the series desperately needs to make its lead more vulnerable to make him even be a tiny bit relatable and give Kevin Bacon an opportunity to actually act, so this would kill two birds with one stone.
-Treat the serial killers like bad people. ‘The Following’ got confused this season and thought it was ‘Dexter,’ which devotes enormous time and care into crafting its serial killer as someone the audience feels okay about conditionally rooting for. Exactly none of that care went into ‘The Following,’ which barrelled ahead with its parade of serial killers casually drinking, flirting, and shooting the breeze. It’s gross.
-Speaking of gross, the violence and gore doesn’t necessarily need to be tuned down, but the characters around it need to react in a way that real humans would react. ‘The Following’ gets slammed for its bad taste not because of how far it goes (NBC’s ‘Hannibal’, for example, goes farther), but because the show seems to revel in the depravity. All the dozens of murders are treated SO matter-of-factly; there’s rarely an extended period of mourning, or condemnation, or anything else. And while lip service is occasionally paid to the media, a killing spree on this scale would be one of the largest global story in recent history, and the media would be entirely pervasive in any investigation. The world that ‘The Following’ currently exists in bears virtually no resemblance to the real world – season two needs to change that.

In short…
-Dramatically slow the pace of the story to allow the events of each episode to resonate.
-Build more hours around single-episode villains.
-Create mysteries that are solved by the TEAM, not just by Kevin Bacon yelling at people that he’s right.
-Get rid of the silly Poe material.
-A whole lot less James Purefoy.

Cautiously optimistic, for these reasons:
-The team behind ‘The Following’ has already hinted at major changes in the second season, so they recognize that this didn’t work.
-This is a very high budget show with plenty of on-camera talent that’s currently being wasted.
-The terrible critical reception has hopefully shamed FOX and those behind ‘The Following’ into reconsidering the show’s grim worldview.

So, there is some reason to be optimistic for ‘The Following’ in season two – that is, unless all the optimism has been sucked out of you after watching one season of ‘The Following.’

Note: Disagree with Kyle’s take? Check out Guest Contributor Ariel Faraci’s impassioned defense of ‘The Following’!

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