Call me crazy, but in light of the “dialogue on mental illness” that is supposedly sweeping the country incited by the Newtown school shootings and the fractured family depicted in Silver Linings Playbook, how can FOX justify its new serial killer-cum-cult drama, The Following? Do the producers deserve a pass for this ill-timed, graphically violent show if they bookend every commercial with “Viewer discretion is advised”? I think not.
The Following is a virtual “playbook” for any social misfit, sociopath or psychopath looking for validation, a niche or empowerment.
Why did I tune in to begin with? I’m a Kevin Bacon fan and jump at the chance to see him perform in anything. And I’m no prude. If you’ve followed my blog, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m eagerly awaiting Season 3 of The Killing. I miss the creepy 666 Park Avenue, and never miss my nightly fix of The Sopranos, currently re-airing weeknights on HBO. For me, the latter still stands as the most outstanding series ever conceived, cast, written, directed, scored and acted in cable or broadcast TV history. Its exploration of dysfunctional family life, marriage, women’s roles, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and, of course, crime and punishment transcends its professed focus on Jersey Goodfellas. If you think The Sopranos is passé, try following an episode of The Sopranos with an hour of Revenge, Elementary or Deception, and see what that gets you. Pass the Pepto.
But back to The Following. Unlike The Sopranos, where violence and revenge played out (i.e., conflict resolution?) within the mob subculture, and The Killing explored the psychological fall-out from one young woman’s murder, The Following knows no such bounds. Its psychology is sophomoric and its violence is inspired by the life and work of Edgar Allen Poe, at least that’s the line espoused by charismatic lit professor/serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) to the cult building up around him. Professor Carroll not only talks the talk but also continues to walk the walk from his prison cell via the Internet by encouraging his “followers” to slaughter innocent victims (i.e., especially beautiful young women) as a pathway to artistic nirvana.
Knives are their weapons of choice and victims’ eyes are favorite targets, again with a nod to Poe. Unfortunately for humankind, Joe’s brief escape from prison—he was incarcerated for the brutal killing and evisceration of campus coeds—simply fanned the fires in the bellies of his acolytes. It should come as no surprise that Joe attracts young, disenfranchised loners marginalized by their families, society and mental illness.
Add to this mix former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) who was instrumental in capturing Joe eight years before the dawn of this series. In the process, Ryan fell for Joe’s wife and probably fathered the son Joe believed to be his own. After the collar, Ryan spun into a tailspin with booze and a pacemaker to patch his wounded (Tell-Tale?) heart. He’s a train wreck whom Joe targets and casts within a Poe and revenge-fueled drama orchestrated from prison.
Aside from dragging Edgar Allen Poe’s good name and work into the gutter, this series is especially irresponsible coming so soon after the carnage in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, and the numerous other mass shootings by young, psychopathic loners. So far, The Following has explicitly showcased a particularly gruesome array of murders that include torture, evisceration, eye-gouging and, unfortunately for Ryan’s pacemaker, stun-gunning.
Despite healing her physical and psychic wounds, Joe’s only surviving victim eventually meets a gory end as do the stolen pet dogs that are cut up alive for practice by an ardent follower. Isolated and confused, Joe’s young son is encouraged to smother a mouse in an airtight jar. And another young acolyte is bullied and humiliated by fellow followers into tackling his first knifing. Luckily for the victim—who has been kidnapped, beaten and held hostage for sport in the basement of their hide-out—the first-timer chickens out.
One of Joe’s most disturbed followers dons an Edgar Allen Poe costume and entertains passersby as a street poet. He ends his “act” by dousing an unsuspecting book critic (he panned Joe’s book!) with a large can of flammable liquid, setting him ablaze in front of a horrified crowd of onlookers. The victim was simply waiting in line to buy a hot dog from a street vendor. And if you failed to catch this disgusting act the first time around, fear not… this bone-chilling sequence has been repeated (a visual feast for potential copycats?) from several angles in flashbacks and episode updates.
In short, “the brains” behind The Following have shown incredibly poor judgment and timing. Aside from lacking any discernible empathy for the cult’s victims, the producers seem oblivious to the show’s real-time parallels and potential appeal to copycats. While evidence pinpointing the actual effect of violent media on troubled youth is inconclusive, wouldn’t common sense dictate that The Following, such as it is, has no place on broadcast TV during primetime now or forever more.
It’s one thing to pay to get your periodic slice-and-dice film fix in a movie theatre, on DVD or Netflix; but to find it so uncomfortably accessible week in and week out at a disturbingly early hour? Shame on you, FOX! Kevin Bacon and his “followers” deserve better.
The Following unfortunately airs on Monday nights at 9:00 p.m. on FOX. It is definitely not child friendly; nor is it animal friendly, family friendly, coed friendly or Edgar Allen Poe friendly.—Judith Trojan