The Following: Pilot

“‘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!

20 comments:

ChrisB said...

Interesting review, Josie!

While I agree with you that the show is flawed, it caught me and didn't let go. I was completely sucked in and I thought the last five minutes was some of the best television I have seen in a while.

I agree with the questions you ask about the Carroll character as well, but I am willing to go along for the ride to see if they are answered. If not, and relatively soon, then I think the show will devolve into unbelievability.

Kevin Williams has a history of taking a while to find his feet. I thought the beginning episodes of The Vampire Diaries were really, really bad but then it got going. I see great potential in the Bacon/Purefoy "partnership," so I am going to hang in there.

Juliette said...

I like '3 out of 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon' best :)

I might give this a go, just to see Bacon and Purefoy. I'd develop a cultish obsession with James Purefoy quite easily...

Tim said...

Excellent review, Josie. You articulated exactly what I felt about the show.

With so many tropes, cliches and stock characters the entire thing seemed to be a perfect set up for Williamson's meta, self-referential style. Except that it never happened (except, kind of, in those last few minutes).

That moment at the end when Hardy enters the interview room; if only Carroll had said something like 'Hello Clarice' everything would have been alright. Well, OK, maybe not everything but it would have helped.

I'm not hopeful for the rest of the series if it is as predictable and, er, Poe-faced (sorry) as this.

BTW, for fans of this genre I would strongly recommend Charlie Brooker's A Touch Of Cloth which screened on UK TV last year. It was a merciless and hilarious parody of every crime drama/police procedural/psychological thriller you've ever seen. You'll never look at a glossy but superficial series like The Following in the same way.

The Dark Shape said...

I was bored out of my mind by it, but I watch a lot of horror films and thus the 'shock value' had absolutely no effect on me. I just saw a really bad Thomas Harris-wannabe.

(And the 'meta' bits at the end were Williamson cannibalizing himself; pretty much the exact same information pops up in the finale of Scream 2.)

PlatinumRosebud said...

If Hardy was in his right mind and brought a gun when he went after Carroll, he could have shot Carroll and end the series. Hahaha.

If this becomes a "follower of the week" thing, it'll become boring.

Note that Carroll is supposedly due to be executed "in a few days".

I wonder if "in a few days" will be in slow-mo. :)

Anonymous said...

I wanted to throw something at my TV. As someone who teaches literature, and who has taught Poe's works many times, I found this show's take on Poe ignorant at best. Carroll doesn't understand the first thing about Poe--it's like he only read the Cliff Notes version of Poe's work. I guess you could argue that since he's nuts, he lacks the capacity to understand Poe, but that seems like a weasel clause.

They couldn't find an actual Poe scholar to consult on this show? They didn't think they needed one? Are they imagining a literature professor who teaches Poe wouldn't have bothered to read ALL of Poe's works, including "The Philosophy of Composition"? Poe didn't think there was anything particularly beautiful about death, and he certainly didn't think a dead woman on her own was beautiful. He thought that a beautiful dead woman was inherently poetic, not because her death was beautiful but because it was so tragic. Poe mourned the deaths of women, especially his beloved Virginia, and he deeply understood the crushing grief such deaths leave behind.

And if you have two ounces of brains to rub together, and you have actually read all of his works, you should know that. What they are doing to Poe on this show is disgraceful and is going to lead people to completely misunderstand a great and important American writer. Sorry for the rant, but this kind of sloppy research and writing really irritates me.

KAM

Josie Kafka said...

KAM, don't apologize! In the original draft of this review, after the line "And the 'literary' dialogue is really nonsensical," I had a long list of quotes from the dialogue and explanations of how they made zero sense.

I really don't like this idea that "old" stories have some sort of "secret message" about anything--whether it's the secret to life (Da Vinci Code) or an obsession with death (Poe in The Following). It is offensive to the literature, promotes the wrong kind of reading (= not reading but searching Wikipedia for hints to the alleged secret), and relies on the ignorance of the viewer to succeed.

It also boils vast bodies of literature down to pithy, tweetable concepts. What is Poe about? Beauty in death--let's slaughter folks! Useless, massive generalizations that make people feel knowledgeable.

I was also surprised that Williamson would make Carroll fixated on imitating Poe himself. Poor Poe was such a personal disaster.

ChrisB said...

KAM and Josie both make an interesting point about the bastardization of great literature in pursuit of entertainment. As someone else who has both read all of and taught Poe, this take on his work did not upset me as much as it did others, and not just on this site. While I agree that the interpretation of Poe’s work in the pilot is off-kilter and not one that I readily accept, I also think that Williamson likes to expand his stories over time and that as Hardy gets to know Carroll, his take of how Carroll views Poe may evolve.

I understand the concern about how this view of Poe may be taken as “the right one” for many people. But, the optimist in me hopes that it will also drive people to read Poe’s works who never have in the past. Lucky them; they are in for a treat.

Morgan India said...

Reading most of these comments makes me feel rather silly for liking the series. I may not be well read in Poe - apart from reading some stories for University - but I really enjoyed the pilot and will keep watching the series. I thought James Purefoy was excellent and wasn't really expecting what happened to Sarah.

The only things I didn't like where the dog part and the female agent.

Billie Doux said...

Don't feel silly, Morgan. Everyone's mileage varies, and I know for a fact that you have excellent taste.

I didn't feel any desire to try this series, but Josie's review and the variety in the comments almost make me want to try it. Almost.

Josie Kafka said...

Don't feel silly, Morgan! I read one other review of this show, and it didn't mention Poe at all. As Jess said in another thread, we often see what we're thinking about reflected (for good or ill) in various episodes. I couldn't see past Poe, but that doesn't mean everyone should have the same hang-ups that I do.

If that were true, the world would be filled with people who think the word "potato" is the strangest thing ever.

MiguelJ said...

This is exactly the type of show I would expect to hate. It's a typical Fox pilot told at a frenetically fast pace, where the action and plot-twists move so fast the characters don't have time to react to the different developments. I prefer in general character-oriented shows rather than plot-oriented, as I've learned from viewing experience that the shows where the main draw is the fast-paced plot don't have much longevity in the quality department. I have to admit though that this pilot kept me glued to the screen holding my breath till the end.

The pilot had a very cinematic feel to it, and the high production values made me forget at times that I was watching a show on a basic network. The sound mixing and soundtrack choices - such as the reaccuring "beating heart" and wisely chosen moments of muted sound - complemented the dark shadowy scenes and helped build the intensity and tension. I don't know if it's just because I watched it alone late at night, but there were moments of this pilot that were truly nerve-racking for me, and I never get scared by television. Every scene was a little too short though for my heart rate to get too high (gotta make time for another plot development), but the pilot had several effective moments of true tension. This show has a relentlesly pessimistic and dark atmosphere about it. I don't think I've seen this much blood splatters and eye gouging on network television before (the parent tv groups are gonna have a field day with this show) and it effected me.

Now whether or not that means I will be sticking around each week for the rest of the season depends on the shows ability to get me emotionally invested in the characters. Despite how effectively unnerving the show can be, I'm not gonna watch people get killed every week just for the shock value of it - I'm gonna need some character development and story depth to make me invested in this dark world.

Overall, I thought all the actors did a good job with the script, and I personally kind of liked the meta introduced at the end as long as Williamson doesn't go too far with it. Hopefully the characters and the world they inhabit will be fleshed out a bit in the upcoming episodes and this will become a smart and addicting thriller. One can hope.

TheShadowKnows said...

It was okay. Kevin Williamson usually has decent ideas, but he's apparently too lazy to put in the work to actually develop them. For example, I doubt he gave the works of Poe more than a superficial skim, so all the references to Poe are so much empty nonsense.

Plus, let's face it, it's all kind of laughable. Serial killers in movies and TV shows are always geniuses who create elaborate schemes in order to recreate the seven deadly sins through murder or whatever. Serial killers in real life are typically half-witted losers who kill victims of opportunity in some clumsy way and leave their bodies in ditches. Hollywood has a bad habit of romanticizing people who don't really merit it, but inbred hicks who murder random strangers would seem to be a particularly poor candidate for this treatment. Oh well.

PlatinumRosebud said...

I am one of those, like you, Morgan who's not well versed with Poe's works.
I also watched the show for pure entertainment.
In my opinion though, the show writers may have done their own interpretation to make it more "entertainingly gruesome".
Maybe a bit obscure and sure to rub some viewers the wrong way.
This is a pilot where any news and reactions is good publicity.

CrazyCris said...

Like my namesake (hi ChrisB!) I too was sucked in and not released until it finished! I'm definitely curious enough to see where they go with this, and I'm prepared to enjoy a healthy dose of James Purefoy on a weekly basis (Juliette's "obsession" with his has rubbed off on me) ;o)

I think they'll delay Carroll's execution date in order to mine him for insight about his followers.

I am afraid this will devolve into a "follower of the week" show, but I'm willing to give them a month to prove me wrong.

Michal Dvorak said...

I haven't heard of this show before, but based on the review and the comments I decided to check it out. And I liked it quite a lot. The plot is of course hardly anything new, but I think it was well done and the show was very atmospheric and dark. Thanks, Josie, for pointing the show out to me.

I know almost nothing about Poe (I think I read some of his stuff at high school but apparently it didn't impress me much), but I have no problem believing that his work's portrayal here was entirely inaccurate. I mean come on, this is television. It gets almost everything wrong. I work with computers for a living and I can tell you pretty much every single thing you hear in TV shows about computers and the internet is wrong. (Or try asking a doctor about the accuracy of the medicine in doctor TV shows.)

I've made my peace with the fact that in TV, computers = magic. The only things I now require of TV shows are good character work and that the rules are at least internally consistent, even if they don't resemble the rules of the real world.

I think a similar approach might be good for this show if you're well versed in Poe or literature in general. Just assume it takes place in a parallel universe whose Poe shares some superficial similarities with our Poe, but otherwise is a totally different person. You might enjoy the show more then.

I'll be definitely back for the following episodes, although I'm not quite sure this will work well as a series. A mini series might have been a better choice.

sunbunny said...

"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."

Now that is a flawless description of what is wrong with this show. Bravo, Josie. I, for one, would love to see your original review complete with list of nonsensical literary criticism jargon.

KAM - "They couldn't find an actual Poe scholar to consult on this show?" I don't think you can blame them for that. Going from the writers' interpretation of Poe, they just might be illiterate.

Also, James Purefoy has NOT aged well. What a pity.

Besides the truly terrible Poe stuff, it was decent. Nothing remarkable, but given the quality of the other stuff premiering this spring...

Josie Kafka said...

Sunbunny, I'm afraid the list of nonsense has long been deleted. This is the one (most awful) quote I was able to track down with some googling: "This is the Romantic period. Death is about theme, mood, motif, emotional aesthetic."

Yes, death is about theme. Of course.

sunbunny said...

Okay so wow. I thought I just misheard that one. Oh my God.

J.D. Balthazar said...

I'm intrigued enough that I've actually started watching this show after giving in and checking out the pilot two weeks after it aired. Two episodes in and I'm definitely not bored.

I kept looking at Emma Hill, Claire Matthews nanny, trying to figure out where I'd seen her before when it hit me. She lent her voice and did motion capture for a brilliant CGI short. I strongly recommend it, it's only 8 minutes and I've provided the link below. Totally sci-fi.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0KTUysrwgQ