Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Take on "The Following"

Warning, here there be spoilers.

I wanted to like The Following from the get go. Kevin Bacon is a solid actor -I enjoy most of the things I have seen him in - and the premise had promise. Serial killer dramas intrigue me. It is not an obsession with their acts, but more their mindset - it is so totally alien to me that I want to try to understand the thought process. It's like a puzzle. To that end I've watched a lot of Criminal Minds and specials on the History Channel, back when they actually talked about history and not how much random crap is worth.
First, the good. 
Kevin Bacon does not disappoint. He looks the part of a haggard FBI agent. The love triangle with Claire (the killer's ex-wife) is predictable and his pacemaker only seems to matter when people are trying to kill him with magnets or stun guns, or when he has to race up stairs to catch the bad guys. However, Bacon is doing a more than adequate job with what he is given.
The Following also deals with violence in a real and visceral way. Much how the American version of The Killing tried to avoid pulling punches with the aftermath of death, The Following makes no bones about the act of killing or inflicting serious bodily harm. The action is there in front of you and it is real. There are no quips, no slick music, no cutaways. 
And now, the bad...and there is quite a bit of it.
Joe is not a very convincing serial killer. His back story- an English professor specializing in Edgar Allan Poe who becomes obsessed with Poe's work and uses it to fuel his killings - is so cliche it hurts. While charismatic, I have to suspend a lot of disbelief  to see Joe as someone capable of cultivating such a large, and devoted, cult of personality. 
Also, he seems like a shitty professor, doing a lot of entry level analysis of Poe.
Second, the show played right into an awful trope. Annie Parisse (aka D.A. Borgia of Law & Order) plays Debra Parker, the FBI's resident cult expert. A few weeks ago we got her back story. Surprise, she was a member of a cult, the kind where the cult leader likes to do grossly inappropriate things with underage female members. In one cutaway we see her escape from his lecherous clutches.
At this moment, at had so much hope for the show. Then I realized it was on network television. Parker is returned to the cult leader for an implied rape.
Parker is a strong, smart and capable character. She could have been all these things without being sexually assaulted. Rape and sexual violence is horrible. Many people do not recover. Many do and become strong people, but it is so sickening to see it used as a plot point in their character development.
To contrast this, look at Sons of Anarchy. In season two, Gemma (played spectacularly by Katie Segal) is brutally raped. She is already a strong woman by this point. We see her fall from this position and claw her way back over the next two seasons. Gemma's journey resonates because it is far more real. 
And writing this makes me feel ill, because it's talking about such acts in entertainment media. There is no good way to deal with rape except to do whatever you can to stop it (thus ends the PSA).
The Following also has a race problem. There are no non-White leads that survive. Black FBI agent? Stabbed in the throat? Black lawyer for Joe? Killed by Joe. Sure, there's a black Marshal, but he's pretty firmly entrenched in the "angry Black man" character, and is largely invisible. The two characters that were killed off were doing so right as their characters were becoming interesting. In this week's episode, the lawyer helps Joe escape. Instead of dealing with the ramifications of her acts, she gets killed. This is a cop out. In the same episode, our first character of clear Latino descent (Warden Montero) facilitates the escape and gets locked up. It's painful.

I think the biggest problem with this drama is that Fox saw the success of all their FX dramas, and decided to try and adapt it to the basic network. FX, with shows like Sons of Anarchy and The Americans do a great job of having us identify with "bad guys" that commit multiple crimes and kill a ton of people. But we are able to identify with them because they have to kill. It is to protect their way of life, perverse as it may be. The Following fails here because no one in the show has to kill. The Cult of Joe is built around "wanting to kill." Emma, the nanny-come-kidnapper of Joe's child (Joey), has a shitty mom, and kills her. This is so drastically different from Jax in Sons of Anarchy killing to protect his family and club. The Following is trying to make these English 101 groupies feel like  full characters. It has thus far failed because the only thing they care about is an arrogant, piss-poor professor with an accent. And apparently Edgar Allan Poe.

I am going to keep watching the show because A) it has potential and B) there is nothing else on in its time slot. But if it doesn't get better by season's end, I don't think I'll be back.

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