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!