FOX debuted their new series The Following Monday night; the series stars Kevin Bacon as a former FBI agent called back on duty as the serial killer he put away is on the loose again. Ryan Hardy (Bacon) has to track down Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), protect the survivor from his previous killing spree, and determine what Carroll is up to. This is quickly complicated by the discovery that Carroll has built up a cult of followers, each wanting to add to their idol’s body count.
As stories go, it’s certainly a different premise, especially for an ongoing drama. And the first episode was well-done and reasonably entertaining. But I’m not completely sold on the series just yet.
I should note for the faint of heart that this show is not just bloody, it’s outright gory at times. There are elements that would be at home in any slasher film. This didn’t keep me from enjoying it — while I certainly was disturbed by some scenes, they weren’t enough to put me off the show — but it is worth noting so people know what they’re getting into.
What is holding me back a bit is the characters. I know it’s only the first episode, but so far I’m not feeling compelled by the major leads. Kevin Bacon is a fine actor, of course, and none of the actors do a bad job. But at least so far, they don’t have much to work with either. Bacon’s Hardy is a bit of a loose cannon, prone to operating outside the regulations. Purefoy’s Carroll is a psychopath who likes to play mind games and reference Edgar Allen Poe. Hardy and Carroll are connected through Hardy capturing him the first time — sustaining a serious injury in the process — and because Hardy briefly dated Carroll’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea). On the force, Hardy has to deal with an agent who’s a fan of his (Shawn Ashmore) and several agents who… aren’t. The characters so far feel like fairly standard roles: the by-the-book FBI agents, the unconventional protagonist, the game-playing serial killer. Were this a movie, it would require considerably more in the way of personality by 45 minutes in. That said, although these are standard templates, they aren’t bad; there just isn’t much to latch onto yet.
The plot, of having to chase down an organized group of collaborative serial killers, has some definite merits… as a movie or novel concept. And it’s not a bad idea, exactly, for a television series. But I’m concerned a bit because I know television series are almost always expected to allow for the possibility of further seasons. Tracking down “the Following” feels like a one-season premise to me. It may sound silly to talk about the second season when the series just debuted, but it’s reflective of an important question about the writing. If Hardy is still chasing Carroll’s followers in the second season, there’s a good chance it means the writers haven’t worked out the ending already — which means there’s a good chance of things getting very silly very quickly. It’s a major problem with dramas that have ongoing mysteries — and The Following obviously qualifies — the more the mystery is stretched out, the less likely it is that the answer is going to be believable and entertaining. I can only really have faith in the quality of the series, in this case, if I feel as if the writers know where they’re going with it all the way to the end. But the nature of network television is such that this is highly unlikely. And so I suspect that there will be any number of shocking swerves written in at the last minute to provide surprises and new plot fodder, regardless of whether it strengthens the overall narrative.
This is primarily a second season concern, which as noted is a bit odd to think about after only one episode. But it’s a question that will first start to play out in the writing for the first season. Just as importantly, it’s a question that leads to another for the viewer: just how much time are we willing to invest in watching the series? This is a ubiquitous question with TV series, of course, but it’s one that is brought into sharp relief here by the premise feeling like it has an inherent time-limit on its credibility. It’s hard to want to stay with even a great series if one doesn’t expect it to remain good… and right now, The Following is merely a good show, and not a great one.
I expect I’ll watch a few more episodes, at least. But if it starts to feel at all shaky, or if the characters just don’t catch my imagination, then it’s likely I’ll be following The Following… nevermore.