Friday, January 25, 2013

The Following: Pilot (1.1)

Over the holidays I watched The Bourne Legacy, a standard action movie conspiracy yarn with little emotional heft or much memorable beyond a couple of bursts of random intensity. What lingered, though, was a scene involving an array of characters being shot one by one by a rogue agent. Individuals locked in a room, hiding in peril, an emotionless gunman slowly moving from person to person and murdering them in blunt horror. Watching it only a couple of days after the Newtown tragedy put a darker spin on the moment -- it was a scene that suddenly felt especially perverse, almost gleeful in its grotesque madness as we saw these people weeping on the ground, hoping that they wouldn't be spotted by the man with the gun.

Much of The Following's pre-air publicity has revolved around its depiction of graphic violence; the uneasy relationship between the envelope-pushing extremities frequently seen on film and the increasingly horrifying violence seen on the 24 hour news cycle. Especially on a show like this, in which probably 98% of its premise feels like the millionth xeroxed Silence of the Lambs copy in existence, it repeatedly feels like EP Kevin Williamson is turning to extreme violence to cover up the generic drama elsewhere. With its 'eye-gouging' motif and senseless close-ups of dismembered dogs struggling to stay alive, The Following crosses into that area that, like The Bourne Legacy, is just uncomfortable and ugly to watch. Even if we weren't still reeling from real-life incidents of prolonged horror, there's still something annoyingly try-hard about the violence on display in this pilot. Derivative as it is, The Following is entertaining enough on its own as a standard serial killer thriller. Adding in a ghoulish abundance of visual misery is like finding a bloody razor at the bottom of your cereal box. It's superfluous.

Kevin Bacon, in his series debut, is a disgraced FBI agent with a permanent five o'clock shadow. With his shabby demeanor, emotional difficulties with his colleagues, requisite dark past and secret drinking problem, Agent Ryan Hardy is 'troubled' with a capital 'T'. Brought back into the fold when a sadistic murderer he helped put away escapes a maximum-security prison, Hardy and his team of plucky feds quickly discover an elaborate 'following' has emerged dedicated to James Purefoy's slithery wingnut, enough to set in motion a vast conspiracy of cray-cray.

Bacon can do this kind of thing in his sleep, but he's one of those steadfastly charismatic actors watchable enough to rise above sometimes questionable material. He's great as a series lead, but Hardy as a character is ludicrous in his intensity, Williamson saddling his protagonist with so many issues that he becomes unintentionally hilarious. Working even less well is the way every character seems to signpost Hardy's reputation with dialogue straight out of one of the weaker Harry Callahan movies -- "I know you don't play well with others, Hardy", and so forth. When your star character comes off like a live-action pastiche of The Simpsons' insanely accurate Detective McGarnagle, then you know things are going to get a little silly.

And silly they are, from Hardy's "screw protocol!" quest to save Maggie Grace's lone Purefoy survivor, to the repeated references to Edgar Allan Poe and Purefoy's desire to co-write a 'sequel' to Hardy's ripped-from-the-headlines novel about the initial killing spree. Kevin Williamson's fingerprints are all over the narrative, particularly the collision between bloody murder and literary/media commerce, something the Scream movies got increasingly wrapped up in as they went along. Likewise there are throwbacks to early Millennium and some of the grislier Criminal Minds hours, as well as the obvious shades of Hannibal Lecter to Purefoy's Joe Carroll -- though his relationship with Hardy lacks the sexual frisson that made Lecter's tête à tête with Clarice Starling so fascinating. It would admittedly be fun to see the show actually explore that, though, if only for the giggles.

The Following works in that its 'FBI agent hunting a serial killer' premise is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that the show is naturally sort of absorbing, while the 'following' of the title is enough of a hook to inspire even casual viewing from week to week (as long as the writers don't rely too heavily on "ooh, he's part of the following, too!" twists, three of which arrive here in quick succession). But it has a real problem with its obsessive need to be grim and menacing, the kind of television that thinks literally showing horrible dog torture and young women hanging upside down with their eyes gouged out is somehow a signifier that this is 'dark' and 'edgy' programming. It's not. It's a ridiculous Manhunter riff at best. But it also has the potential to be incredibly addictive, save for all the guts and eyeballs littering the soundstage.

Just think of any kind of real-world horror that you've ever read about, be it methodical serial killers or random acts of unimaginable violence. Do we need to see autopsy pictures to fully comprehend the awfulness? Do we need a news channel to broadcast images of body bags being taken out of some backwoods cabin? The Following seems to think that it needs that visceral imagery to work, when the true greats of the genre explored far less visual means of provoking a reaction to better acclaim. Take Janet Leigh in that shower, or Drew Barrymore on the phone. Less is more, mere ideas resonate far greater than literal carnage. Especially in light of so much real-world horror, sometimes we just don't need to see it. B-

Guest stars
Billy Brown (Agent Troy Reilly); John Lafayette (Scott Turner); Steve Monroe (Jordan Raines)
Writer Kevin Williamson Director Marcos Siega

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