Following the Following: The Pilot

Several times a year, major television networks make deliberate, highly researched, yet hopeful decisions about what new shows to heavily promote.  Advertising money and air time is divvied out across days, weeks, and often months before a new show debuts.  The thinking is that if (a) enough people watch a series premiere and (b) the quality and interest level of this pilot and subsequent early episodes are compelling enough to want to delve deeper, a television network can build a hit that is commercially lucrative over time.  For the four major television networks as they are currently constituted (CBS, ABC, Fox, and “welcome back to the party” NBC) this task is increasingly difficult as cable’s critical revolutionary successes of this millennium (the Sopranos to Break Bad lineage so expertly explored in Alan Sepinwall’s book) and the DVR/internetization of television viewing have changed the entire television landscape to a marketplace that is more niche-based, artistically edgier, and less reliant on a mass-audience twenty-two episode season model.  In this new world of TV in which a “massive hit” on a network like AMC can mean the same number of weekly viewers as one of the four major networks least watched shows, the major networks have struggled to find the fusion of critical and commercial success (especially in the scripted drama department) as they once could.  Based on the aforementioned frequent pre-premiere ad campaign extravaganzas, it is not for a lack of trying.

For every fall of 2004 when the ABC marketing department focused on two shows called Lost and Desperate Housewives (the former was an outright and transcendent cultural phenomenon and the latter a long-running hit show that established the tone of the entire network), there have been enumerable The Events, The Rivers, Terra Novas, and Flash Forwards that despite in your face and relentless advertising failed to replicate the magic of predecessor shows.  The most successful modern cable shows (Mad Men, The Walking Dead) unencumbered by a typical major network season length and a higher bar set for ratings success, could build an audience over time, allowing for greater artistic freedom and most often a better product.  This midseason, Fox has banked what must be a huge pie of the “NAI” (not American Idol) ad money on The Following, the latest attempt to make a cable-like drama (e.g. worth watching and of artistic merit) on a major network.  If you turned on Fox television (my NFL fandom, X Factor obligations, and Mindy Project loyalty were my gateways) any time over the last several months, you could not miss the Fox ad men pursuit to inform the masses that Kevin Bacon (the central conduit of cinema connection himself!) was headlining a new serial killer psychological opus.  All the buzz as articulated through unnerving visual repetition and pre premiere hype focused on Kevin Bacon as the star of a network series (almost as if either no bigger movie star had ever come to television or as a Fox less than subliminal allusion to the network arrival of another movie pseudo star, Kiefer Sutherland, some twelve years ago) and how violent, edgy, and cable-like The Following would be for simply a “network show.” (That scene of a woman with text written all over her body was here to prove it!)

I am admittedly a sucker for new major network television program buzz and have gone down the rabbit hole of many a show searching for my next Lost (a serialized experience that becomes an emotional touchstone of my viewing life).  Seemingly each time, any pilot promise unravels faster than a Lindsey Lohan work experience (last season’s failed Alcatraz and The River were the latest culprits) and I am left with another wasted investment.  As Netflix streaming (Mad Men? Check.  Break Bad? Check.) and more thoughtful dvd purchases (hello The Wire at a bargain price for $89.99 three years ago!) have given me front row tickets to the cable TV revolution, my overall television taste has become more refined and discerning and less lenient of major network drivel.  Yet despite it all, I remain a romantic for the next great major network drama and The Following is (as I have been informed many a time by Fox) the most likely candidate in 2013.  Consequently, I will be a weekly follower of The Following in 2013 in hopes that this one show with some potentially sustaining credentials (Kevin Williamson has been a somewhat successful TV frontrunner before) may finally break from the trend of mostly floundering forerunners.

This week’s pilot episode of The Following (delivering a “Fox is happy” 10.4 million pre-DVR viewers) must be considered with a fair amount of benefit of the doubt.  Pilots can be flashy and exciting, but the show itself can be less sustainable over time (Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip immediately comes to mind) or pilots can be hard to get into (both Mad Men and Breaking Bad had tonal qualities that took some getting used to before becoming the masterpieces that they are now) that eventually become incredible series.  However, with this in mind, The Following’s first episode was a bit of a disappointment.  In its quest to establish a clear understanding of the circumstances and stakes of the series, it became bogged down in unrealistic and exposition heavy dialogue, flashback heavy backstories (a definite ode to Lost), boxed characters that already began to irritate (an awful female FBI agent wasn’t even killed off but smartly won’t be returning for episode II), and a premise that may have a challenge to build and sustain over time.

Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent and the author of a true story serial killer book who is called back into duty when James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll, the serial killer in question in Hardy’s book and an author himself, brutally kills (let the graphic body count begin!) some prison guards before escaping from a federal penitentiary.  We learn that Joe Carroll’s last victim before incarceration, Sarah Fuller (played by Lost alum Maggie Grace, just in case you took Lost off your mind for a second), survived his last attack because of the persevering Javert-like commitment and detective work of Hardy who was there to save the day, and is now, ten years later, a doctor in Virginia suburbia.  The new FBI brass (particularly Shawn Ashmore’s tech savvy agent) and victims of Carroll’s past (including Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire Matthews, played by Natalie Zea who long ago had some kind of affair with Hardy) revere the ground Hardy walks on and will only speak to him (this is emphasized one too many times).  It all gets real when the woman with writing all over her naked body stabs her eye after receiving a text from Carroll.  It turns out that Joe Carroll, a former professor of romantic literature (Thoreau, Emerson, and obsessively, Edgar Allen Poe), has a cult-like following (thus the title) of serial killer copycats who will do anything (quite unrealistically I might add which is thankfully acknowledged by one of the smarter agents) in the name of their teacher.  It is revealed that a prison guard under Carroll’s spell (with a propensity to practice killing on helpless animals in his basement) is another disciple and was the likely aider and abetter to Carroll’s prison break.  Sarah Fuller lives next door to two (something was amiss from the beginning, especially on the Fox network) gay men who, in a twist that everyone saw coming, turn out to be members of the church of Joe Carroll as well and abduct Sarah Fuller right under the noses of FBI protection (secret tunnels through closets will allow for such action).  Hardy’s detective skills lead him to a rundown bed and breakfast where he and Carroll have their first onscreen confrontation (Ryan Hardy – meet two by four to the head) before (SPOILER ALERT!) it is revealed that Hardy is too late and Sarah Fuller is already dead (Carroll kindly discusses how hard it is to remove an eye from the seven muscles that connect it to the body.  Thanks so much for this intel.).  The FBI support pulls the despondent (Joe Carroll – meet Ryan Hardy choke hold) Hardy off of Carroll’s neck and sends the serial killer back to prison.  As the episode ends, we learn that the two gay men (imbedded in a plot to kidnap Sarah Fuller for three hard to believe years) along with the nanny to Claire Matthew’s and Joe Carroll’s nine year-old son have abducted little Joey.  Future episodes (“this season on…”) promise jailhouse confrontations between Hardy and Carroll, some in fighting among the nanny and gay couple followers, more romantic backstory about Claire and Ryan, and a new FBI-type character played by Annie Parisse.

So far, there are a few things that are working for The Following:

  • Both Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (most notably of HBO’s Rome) are competent actors whose cat and mouse game, seemingly central to the action of this show, will be intriguing to watch.
  • Kevin Williamson, no stranger to the horror genre, packs in several “gotcha to jump up out of your seat” moments (a trend that will likely continue), that may disallow other forms of external distractions (my favorite is diving into the IMDB information maze any time the action on screen becomes dull) from pervading the viewing experience.
  • The “follower of the week” format will allow for an endless number of character introductions.
  • The Following, although serialized for television, sports a movie-like psychological DNA that could be an asset for tension building over time.
  • Killing off Maggie Grace always seems to make sense (Shannon had worn out her welcome on Lost too).

Unfortunately, if the tone of the show set by the pilot is any indicator of what is to come, The Following is a cold, and unemotional journey through a psychological game of serial killing that will yield few warm returns on your investment.  The following premise of The Following takes many a logic leap and may be too much of a buy-in to sustain viability over time.  Although Kevin Bacon can deliver a role, he has never been an actor that makes you root for him, so the thought of spending several episodes (let alone several seasons) with him as the protagonist is less than comforting.  Thrills and chills only go so far (this may be reason why horror movies are usually short and sweet) if character connection is not made.  The language comes across as unrealistic (there is a bit too much emphasis on full names – I am not sure I have come across a pilot I came out of knowing more surnames of characters) and is exposition-heavy and nuance-lite.  Each character revealed to follow James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll seems like too far a reach (The nanny?  Really?) and may further derail any future attempts at believability throughout the life of the series.

With all this in mind, the pacing and tension will sustain my interest for at least a little while.  The task for The Following in coming weeks is to make me actually care about the characters, especially Bacon’s Ryan Hardy, whose pacemaker-supported heart must produce more of a pulse.

What did you all think?  Are you a follower?  Would you rather just play a healthy game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon than watch him on your TV?

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.

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