Dropped: The Following

Posted on February 14, 2013

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For the first time since I started this column, I dropped a show right after saying it was On The Bubble. Here’s what happened.

Feedback

I got some feedback from last week saying that the villain was unbelievable and that serial killers were done to death over the last twenty years or so. She has a point. It’s tough to be excited about a serial killer after the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings. After an LAPD officer sets off a state-wide manhunt by killing some people. After Columbine and Newtown. It is an old, stale, horror, like the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula.

That said, what got me to watch The Following was the twists. The killer was obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe. The man wrote, “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”

In addition, the show promised us an up to date approach to the topic, with a master villain who uses social media to recruit followers who kill for him.

My Frustration

Poe also wrote, “That motley drama—oh, be sure It shall not be forgot! With its Phantom chased for evermore By a crowd that seize it not, Through a circle that ever returneth in To the self-same spot; And much of Madness, and more of Sin, And Horror the soul of the plot.”

You would think that Poe would give a writer plenty to mine for inspiration. Well, except for one guy dressed up as Poe in episode 3, we get nothing. Apparently Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is too smart to use literal devices lifted directly from Poe. While that makes for a good character, it disappoints the audience.

Also, all the social media stuff happened before Carroll escaped from prison in the first episode. It’s over and done. Whatever plot he set in motion, it has to go on without Joe Carroll.

Now, I have never been an FBI agent, nor have I ever worked in law enforcement. I know some police officers, and one retired FBI agent. Plus, I served as a tank platoon leader in the First Gulf War for the US Army. The FBI agents in The Following are wimps.

They are not nearly angry enough. They are not nearly determined enough. They are not nearly experienced enough for the team they are on and the kind of work they are doing.

As a combat arms officer, I was taught to get inside the decision making cycle of my opponent and stay there. If I acted faster than he could think, I would win. These FBI agents have, so far, made no effort to get inside the decision making cycle of Joe Carroll or of the killers that they know about. They are playing catch up, and that is a loser’s game.

A few months ago, there was a shooting in Clackamas Town Center mall. It hit close to home. I have co-workers at the REI store there. One of the things that came out of that is that, in the wake of other mass shootings, police no longer wait for back-up. They go in fast, disrupt the thinking of the shooter, and control the situation.

The Following is just not up-to-the-moment on anything, really, and it lacks the poetry and literary value that makes us forgive the lack of technical accuracy.

Episode 4

I did watch Episode 4 (Mad Love), but my mind was largely made up before I did. In fact, I pretty much made up my mind when I saw the advance ads for the episode.

In this episode, one of Carroll’s followers kidnaps the sister of Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon).

Really? No one sees this coming?

Joe Carroll is a super genius who knows everything about Hardy’s life, and clearly his followers know quite a bit, too. Once the FBI called Hardy as a consultant, and once they realized how far beyond the prison walls Carroll’s influence extended, the entire Hardy family should have been in protective custody.

That one moment in the ad where they gave us the primary plot point for the episode made me want to stop watching.

Writing

It’s incredibly difficult to write intelligent characters, especially if they are supposed to be smarter than you are. One way to do it is to make them almost prescient. Whatever happens, they expected it and prepared for it. That runs out of power when the audience realizes that it’s actually random. What the character does or does not expect is entirely up to the writers, and serves only to advance the plot. No one can anticipate everything. Particularly not when an opponent does something random, or takes direct action inside your decision making cycle.

Alternately, you can make the opponents unprepared or not as smart. This approach, I find, quickly bores the audience. Everything is too easy for the intelligent character. On top of which, we measure characters by the challenges that they face. If the opponents are not challenging, then we lose respect for the intelligent character.

This seems to be the alternative used, so far, in The Following.

In fact, the best thing to do is to keep the intelligent character as inscrutable, and as unknown, as possible. Nothing is as frightening as the unknown. The less the audience knows about your character’s resources, the scarier he (or she) is.  For example, Hannibal Lecter has gotten less and less interesting as we have learned more and more about him in books and movies. He was intimidating in Manhunter, terrifying in Silence of the Lambs, and has gotten less interesting ever since. Even the re-make of Manhunter, Red Dragon, was less interesting because we already knew so much about Lecter and the Tooth Fairy.

That is another problem for the writers of The Following. They have to limit the extent of Carroll’s network, or it’s just another random person killing another random person. Horrible, true, but lacking the development to generate human interest from the audience. Unfortunately, this means that we get to know Carroll’s most significant followers. That they are all as smart and as capable as Carroll breaks our suspension of disbelief. They are human. They make mistakes. The FBI is extremely good at catching mistakes and taking advantage of them.

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Ultimately, my problem is that The Following is too much a procedural to be a human interest story, and the human interest stories don’t ring true for the kind of people who become FBI serial killer hunters – based both on my personal experiences, and on what the media tells us.

The writers need to step up their game. The producers need to pick a focus and emphasize it.

Thoughts?

The Following is the kind of show where the acting is terrific, the directing is good, and the production values are excellent…yet the show just doesn’t work. Can you think of similar shows?

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Posted in: television