Monday, February 11, 2013

THE FOLLOWING and the perils of too much of the same surprise

I raved about the pilot for The Following when I got an advanced peek at it last summer and it's safe to say I was eager to see what came next when the series debuted.  The hook of the show is that Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent called in to help with a manhunt when the serial killer he put behind bars a decade ago escapes.  Though the killer - played by James Purefoy - is captured by the end of the pilot, it's soon revealed that he's got a devoted cult of followers - all of whom are eager to do his bidding and kill in his name.

The pilot made use of the "this guy's one of THEM" shock twist at least three times, and initially, that was a great way to set the audience on edge.  We've met seemingly normal people who end up being part of a ridiculously over-coordinated plot to serve the killer's bidding, so going into future episodes, we might be wise to not trust anyone.

That's a knife that cuts both ways, though.

At this point, just three episodes in, the script has pulled that "HA HA, they're part of the cult" trick so many times that I have stopped investing in any of the characters.  There was a scene at the end of the second episode where the FBI agent played by Anna Parisse delivered a book to Purefoy, and the camera lingered an insanely long amount of time on a gaze they shared.  Blind viewers would have been able to pick up the implication, "Everybody got that? This ambiguous gaze means that... SHE COULD BE ONE OF THEM!"

The third episode featured a subplot where we meet a woman whose husband killed a critic on Purefoy's behalf. Already attuned to the fact that the first two episodes got their jollies by revealing that the person we least suspect was "in on it." I immediately guessed... well.. she was in on it.

And I was right.  The way things played out, the show wasn't banking on me guessing that ahead of time, though.

It's going to be hard watching the show going forward because if history holds, at least once an episode the show is going to try get us all to fall in the same trapdoor again. And since we all KNOW that trapdoor is there, the easy way to avoid it is not step on it, i.e., don't invest in any of the characters.

Boy, that was a tortured metaphor.  My point is, when I go to a magic show, I want to get involved in the spectacle. I don't want to see ten variations on the "saw-the-lady-in-half" gag because by the third time I'll have moved on from "pretty cool" to "ah, I think I see how this is done."  I'm hyper-aware of how the show is trying to shock me and because of that, I'm not engaged with the show.

This doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't try to surprise an audience frequently.  Williamson's other series The Vampire Diaries has done a fairly strong job of advancing the story week-to-week and providing a variety of shocking twists at a fairly frequent pace. The difference there is that there are a variety of twists.  The show doesn't just rely on the "This character isn't what they seem" reveal, and often when it has deployed that trick, it's built it up over several weeks and been layered in in such a way that that twist isn't the sum total of the character's value.

But you can't go to the same maneuver and keep the audience engaged.  (Which is not to say that Vampire Diaries is totally immune to this. The Klaus character has stuck around at least a season past his sell-by date when it would have been more powerful to off him for good last season.) It's inevitable at some point that a member of the FBI team will be revealed to be playing for Purefoy's team.  I'm just bummed that when it happens, I won't be floored by it because the show insisted on calling that shot almost from the beginning, like Babe Ruth point to the bleachers.

I'm gonna stick with the show in the hopes that this gimmick is moderated over the course of the season.  I understand it takes some shows a while to find their voice - but I really hope that tonight's episode of The Following can surprise me without once giving a shocking reveal that... s/he's one of them!


  1. I also adored the pilot and was disappointingly underwhelmed by the following two episodes, and I think you've hit the nail on the head. Rather than advancing each week, it almost feels as though the needle is stuck in the groove, and we're seeing variations of the same episode each week: someone dies and it's revealled that someone else is part of them.

    Three eps in, I don't feel I know, or even suspect, any more about the cult's grand plan - other than a vague "emulate Purfoy/continue his work" than I did in the pilot, which is making my interest drift a bit. Which is gutting when the pilot was so promising! I'm not out yet, so fingers crossed...

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  3. I didn't realize until I read this journal entry that the "omigawd this guy has a cult!" was supposed to be the big twist. Let this be a lesson to all of us about the dangers of including your twist in the torrents of advertisements pimping the midseason premiere.

    Watching it gave me a very CBS-Mentalist sensation...overtures of "police work" and "investigation", all of which are ultimately powerless against the smirking omnipotent hero (foe in Following's case). The Mentalist has been getting on with the "it's the person you least suspect, by which we mean the person who we spoke to the least in the course of investigation" for...what...five seasons now? Even if the Following doesn't change it's tune, I think it'll keep sluggin' away. Maybe they'll introduce a cute orphan kid with psychic powers to keep things fresh.

    That is a good question though (Claireduffy)...what grand scheme COULD the cult have? Cults, historically, do not have great grand schemes...and they certainly NEVER have an exit strategy.

    THAT would be a hell of a story to write into The Following.

    Yep, that settles it. The only hope for The Following is if they stop focusing so hard on James Purefoy and look into the cult. There's drama and dissent to be had!!

  4. I don't watch THE FOLLOWING for the same reason I don't watch DEXTER or (believe it or don't) BREAKING BAD: I get extremely skittish whenever I see something shaping up, artistically, that has a large potential for glorifying evil.

    I may be wrong about this: I've heard that BREAKING BAD is right up there with the SOPRANOS (a borderline case I decided in favor of the show -- my brother, who had a friend murdered by the Mafia, still can't watch it). But I guess that's just the way I was hatched.

    Hopefully not digressing too much: is anyone else astonished that NBC cancelled DO NO HARM after only two shows? It wasn't the greatest show (far inferior to AWAKE, let alone PERSON OF INTEREST), but I found it to be involving enough to install on my dvd recorder as a "record all new shows"-type series.

  5. I thought the pilot was terrible and have stuck with the next 3 episodes, 2 & 3 were good. Tonight, #4, just slow as molasses and perhaps yes, this is a one trick pony. Also, Kevin Bacon is so sullen and morose all the time (understandably) that it's hard to connect to anyone. Not sure what I'll be doing next Monday night at 9pm.

  6. Fair point ashley p. quach that these cults in reality don't tend to have an overall motivation, but I think with this show, but I'm missing a cohesion, a pattern to what they're doing that would help to make it feel as though it develops from week to week as the mystery is unraveled. Right now, it feels as though we know all we need to know (a bunch of people are going to hang out and kill in the name of Carrol) so it's just a question of watching it happen until Kevin Bacon catches them. I keep sensing that there's more, but maybe I'm just kidding myself ;-)

    This week, for example, the episode was okay, but it felt like a stand alone. These sorts of 'heightened crime dramas' sometimes hit an awkward balance between crime of the week and the serial elements - when it's too serial you miss the satisfaction of an episode being "done" (the most recent season of Dexter struggled with that, it was all about the season story) whereas this show feels entirely done every week.

  7. I have to agree that the show is becoming just a little predictable and I may have trouble following along because of it. The show doesn’t seem to believe in giving the audience any credit to its level of intelligence to figure it out. I want to like this show because it has potential but it has so many nonsense characters that they really don’t fit the story at all. I haven’t see this week’s episode but I did see a clip in my office at DISH. It looked really exciting but I thought the same thing about last week’s showing. The show airs while I’m still at work so I’ll be catching up on it while I’m taking the train home tonight. Thanks to the Hopper and DISH Anywhere I can turn my iPad into a TV and I can access anything I’ve recorded or that is on air right now. Not only is that convenient but I also won’t be bored during the commute. I can watch everything anywhere, anytime.