Pied Piper of Evil: The Following Complete Series Premiere Review
By Carol Tacker Monday January 21st 2013
Remember when the tag line of Kevin Williamson’s Scream franchise posed the question, “Do you like scary movies?” His latest foray into terror, “The Following” (FOX, Monday at 10:00p.m. ET) does not bother to ask, but if you don’t like to be scared, tune out. On the other hand, if a scary thriller is your guilty pleasure, you must watch. You seldom find something this gritty and blatantly terrifying on network television.
Some have complained about the violence level of this program and yes it is violent. One solution offered is that should only be shown on cable. While the current debate over violence in America is sadly understandable, the violence in this series is critical to understanding just how crazed and terrifying the villain, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and his followers truly are. Of course it is not suitable for a young audience, but that is why it airs at a later hour. The violence is neither gratuitous nor glorified, rather it is horrendous and integral to the plot. It sets up the context in which Carroll must be judged and allows the viewer to better understand Ryan Hardy’s (Kevin Bacon) lingering melancholy over his exposure to Carroll.
Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll have met before. Nine years ago, Hardy stopped Carroll from killing his fifteenth young, female victim. During the struggle, Carroll wounded Hardy and left him with a damaged heart. Perhaps more staggering for Hardy, the horror of getting inside the head of this serial killer in order to capture him left Hardy with demons that only alcohol can mute. Hardy authored a successful book on Joe Carroll, but his emotional and physical wounds took him out of the field as an F.B.I. agent.
Just when Carroll is due to be executed based mainly on the testimony of the fifteenth potential victim whom Hardy rescued, he escapes from prison, leaving several dead prison guards in his wake. When Hardy is asked by the F.B.I. to use his expertise concerning Carroll to help them find him, his immediate concern is for the would-be fifteenth victim as well as for Carroll’s former wife and the young son he has never met. The team of agents working the case are led by Agent Jennifer Mason (Jeananne Goossen), and seem as reluctant for Hardy to join their team as Hardy is to renew his link to Carroll. Only the youngest agent, Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore), seems to understand how valuable Hardy’s insight into Carroll could be.
One of the strengths of this series is how sympathetic characters are created so flawlessly that the viewers root for their survival, and the average procedural would ensure they were rescued in the end, to satisfy that want. But not The Following. Anyone can be a target for Carroll. No one is safe. The fifteenth victim is just such a character. In college at the time she was first attacked, she is now a doctor, and we immediately like her. She has not allowed the attack to prevent her from moving on in life, but she also has a sad, somewhat fatalistic fear that she will never be safe again. She is right. But how can she be endangered with uniformed police inside and outside her home, protecting her? She even has a nice, gay couple in the condo next to hers who are also determined to look after her security.
The same likeability is true of Carroll’s former wife Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea) and son, Joey (Kyle Catlett). It seems Hardy and Claire had a brief affair during the time Hardy was writing his book on Carroll, so additional motives for retribution exist.
It is not enough that Carroll is on the run, the team also identifies a missing prison guard who assisted him. They soon find out that this guard is learning how to be a serial killer by torturing and killing neighborhood pets. Warning, animal lovers, look away, but the aftermath of the guard’s grisly work is not shown in great detail. This provides the first solid clue that Carroll has been weaving a web of psychopaths to do his bidding. A stunning example of his power over others occurs when a young woman walks into a police station, strips to her underwear and reveals her body is covered in graffiti consisting of Edgar Allen Poe quotes. She plunges a screwdriver into her own heart. We already know that when Carroll wasn’t killing coeds, he was once a professor of literature with a penchant for Poe.
The agents soon find additional “followers” when the young doctor disappears from behind the closed door of her bedroom, with a dead police guard nearby. Hardy follows a blood trail to her closet where he discovers an opening has been carved out of a shared wall between her condo and that of her sympathetic and caring gay neighbors. Hardy soon realizes the two were posing as a couple merely to be close to the victim, who has now disappeared. While in their condo, Hardy sees a photo of the two men in front of an old hotel with a lighthouse theme. He connects that image to the sketch of a lighthouse they found at the prison breakout murder scene and also with Carroll’s failed novel that featured a lighthouse on the cover, in homage to Poe’s unfinished work, The Lighthouse.
Hardy rushes to the old lighthouse hotel, but it is too late. The intended fifteenth victim is now dead, brutally killed by Carroll who almost succeeds in killing Hardy before he is subdued. Who expected Hardy to fail to rescue the sympathetic young doctor? Who expected Carroll to be recaptured in the pilot? How will the mayhem continue if Carroll is in jail or even executed? They know he was using the prison computers to communicate with his followers, but how widespread are his tentacles? This is the brilliance of The Following. Viewers are never allowed to exhale.
What more could happen now? The murder of the doctor and recapture of Carroll was the big bang of this episode, right? Not necessarily. Cut to Claire’s house. Her son, Joey, is missing. So is his lovely and caring nanny, Denise (Valorie Curry), whom we met earlier. As panic ensues, the scene shifts to an open field where two cars park. In one, we see Denise and a sleeping (?) Joey. In the other, the two men who posed as loving neighbors to the young doctor. Joey is handed off to one man, while Denise leaves with the other. The web of followers grows. Carroll’s closing offer to Hardy is that they work on a book together. The expression of horror on Hardy’s face over such a proposed collaboration sums up the viewers’ fears and revulsion.
Carroll is a great villain, at once attractive and intelligent, but we know he is a ruthless madman beneath that veneer. Hardy is a sympathetic, damaged hero and Bacon portrays him with a perfectly modulated mix of regret and determination. The action is delivered at top speed and breaks all the rules on who will survive and who is a follower. Anyone can be a follower and anyone can die. The Following is much more than a backdrop for violence. It is unpredictable, exciting and unsettling and can compete with the best of cable while pushing network television into uncharted territory. So yes, Kevin, we like scary movies and terrifying television too, at least when you are at the helm.