by Josie Kafka
“‘Nevermore’! That’s Poe symbolizing the finality of death!”
For the first 55 minutes of The Following’s premiere episode, I wanted it to get meta. It had all the moving parts necessary for a wacky, bloody romp through nineteenth-century literature: both hero and villain are named after authors (Hardy and Carroll), bad guy is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe, bad guy is a serial killer/literature professor who wrote a book finishing Poe’s unfinished final work, good guy wrote a book about that.
And it had potential. The first on-screen death is a woman covered in quotations from Poe; later, there’s a pendulum (but, sadly, no pit). But creator Kevin Williamson never full engages with the literature he’s alluding to. Instead, he plays the Da Vinci Code game of misinterpretation verging on amphigory, reducing Poe to not much more than elaborate stage dressing meant to mask the show’s flaws. And the "literary" dialogue is really nonsensical.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In The Following, Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, disgraced former FBI agent who investigated a string of serial killings in the early ‘00s: all young women, all with their eyes poked out, all stabbed numerous times. He eventually hits on charismatic literature professor Joseph Carroll (James Purefoy) as his prime suspect. He catches him, saving one last victim, and Carroll goes to prison. Carroll was motivated to kill by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, especially Poe’s idea that insanity and beauty are linked, and that the most beautiful woman is a dead one.
Nearly ten years later, just a few days before his execution, Carroll escapes from prison after slaughtering a handful of guards in “under two minutes.” Hardy is called back to duty as a “consultant,” he tries to find Carroll, he discovers Carroll has magical (not really, which is too bad) charismatic powers that have led him to develop a huge crowd of “followers,” Hardy figures out some stuff, he strikes out on his own in defiance of all logic, things happen, and the show will have 14 more episodes.
I don’t want to say much more than that about the plot, in case you haven’t seen it. It does what you’d expect it to do, and it’s liberally sprinkled with blood and gore. Once you peel back the fancy literary bling, it is neither horrible nor great, just mediocre. It is unbelievable in the way you’d expect, too: why is Carroll so magnetic that he attracts numerous people, all of whom are quite skilled at Alias-level subterfuge? How did the followers fool so many people for so long? Why…oh, never mind. Or perhaps I should say, nevermore.
Which brings me back to where I began: for 55 minutes, I wanted meta. For the last 5, I got it. The final conversation between Hardy and Carroll is one long play on books, plots, authorship, etc. It was silly, and exactly what I didn’t want. Carroll is insane, and I suppose we could write off his crazy Poe obsession and conflation of life (and death) with writing a novel as simply manifestations of a particular psychosis. If the show had made everyone around him sane, Carroll’s dramatics would be silly--and that silliness would be horrifying, given his predilections.
But Hardy seem to take those ideas seriously, as does the show itself, relying on those dramatics for its shock value and overall aesthetic. The result is a show that takes itself more seriously than it ought to, and uses that pretense of seriousness to disguise poorly plotted mysteries. Even the presence of Natalie Zea can’t make up for that.
I can’t decide on a good ratings object, so here are the ones I came up with:
Two out of four tell-tale pacemakers
Two out of four casks of amphigory
Three out of six degrees of Kevin Bacon
Two out of four of Jude the obscure’s adventures in wonderland
Two out of neverfours
Add you own in the comments!