In Hall 20 on preview night of ComicCon The Following pilot aired sandwiched between the by-the-numbers superhero vehicle Arrow and so-far disappointing sci-fi road-trip Revolution. I’ll admit to having been biased in The Following‘s favour when I sat down. I’d seen the amazing trailer before leaving for San Diego (if you haven’t seen it, see it here here – run, don’t walk) and I’m a fan of pretty much everyone it features, the stars James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon just for a start. Needless to say, I had hopes, though low expectations. Decades of having your heart broken by “could’ve been good” TV will do that.
My hopes for The Following were simple. I wanted what I always want out of a basic cable drama – decent writing of solid-enough characters. Give great actors those two things and typically they can elevate them into something I can give my attention or maybe even my heart to. What I got was a filmed world which opened in medias res with a quietly bloody prison break, dragged me in, and never let me come back.
Beginning with a deceptively simple story about a serial killer who breaks out of prison and the cop who caught him the last time, The Following is actually much more complex. Without giving anything away, I can say that one of the main things that sets this pilot apart is the combination of excellent writing and acting.
The protagonist is a familiar trope in former FBI Agent Ryan Hardy played by Kevin Bacon. Bacon’s Hardy is cast by those around him as the hard-boiled ex-cop persona but the more we learn the less he fits into that mold. His isn’t the most interesting character but Bacon plays him well and the contrasts give him a lot of potential.
More important than our hero is the villain around whom Hardy inexorably orbits. Dr. Joe Carroll – former literature professor, ex-husband, father, and crazy-as-a-box-of-cats serial killer – is portrayed by James Purefoy, perhaps best known on TV for his role as Marc Antony in HBO’s Rome. Carroll is, according to Purefoy “one of the scariest serial killers I have ever seen in my life.”
Not only does his character commit atrocities on human bodies, he also exerts a terrible influence over others’ actions. In a scene glimpsed in the trailer, a young woman strips and her body is covered in words and the audience is reminded of infamous trial footage of the women of the Manson family. Where Manson’s girls sat outside the courthouse singing songs with crosses gouged into their forehead, Carroll’s “follower” is in a police station waiting room coated in Poe verse and chanting the morbid wordsmith’s supposed last words. In the context of the pilot, her actions act as a grizzly and poetic catalyst to the rising action of the rest of the episode. She is a message from Carroll but as the show soon proves, everything is a message. Our villain is a man of words, from how he interacts with Hardy down to his first herald whose very body is covered in them.
One of the faults one could accuse the show of is the use of flashbacks, which is a device I’ve never been a fan of but so far it doesn’t seem to over-done. Hopefully they won’t abuse it. Another is that Purefoy has a tendency to chew the scenery but then, it’s clear that the scenery is in fact edible. Every glorious step Carroll takes is hyperaware of its audience and is out to tell a dramatic story. Therefore, within the world of The Following, the melodrama fits. His character is so aware of the meta in his own life that he revels in it, which gives Purefoy a great deal of license.
For all that? The Following never once treats the viewer as if they are anything less than as intelligent as the officers tracking the case. No, we can’t be expected to be at Carroll’s level but it’s refreshing, for a network crime show not to talk to us like we’re stupid (and yes I am looking at you every version of CSI). This self-awareness isn’t treated as a blunt object with which the audience is beaten over the head. It’s obvious, true, but only as yet another part of the mind-game that Carroll is playing with his nemesis and nothing more.
He can see from a great height, while Bacon’s Hardy is still on a ground with only what is in front, back and beside him in his scope. Our cognizance of this gives the villain a sense of dramatic irony that would be a pure pleasure to watch if his motives weren’t so evil – so instead the pleasure is a bit blackened at the edges. Carroll knows more than the FBI, more than Ryan. He knows more than his ex-wife, the victims, his followers, and he certainly knows more than we the audience do.
The Following is brilliant for so many reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned, some I can’t in a spoiler-free review. An obvious passion project for Kevin Williamson of the Scream franchise, the pilot is ripe with potential. The solid writing, a strong and diverse cast, actual surprises that had me jumping and cursing in my seat the screening, and a new twist on an old story are just a few.
For me, however, the real stroke of genius that sets The Following a step above is that for the first time, we the viewer are that we are faced with a villain who, from the word go, is aware that he is playing the part. Carroll knows that he’s creating a story but despite this, The Following promises to be anything but by the book.