I can’t tell you how hard it was at first to wrap my head around the fact that the Following was created by Kevin Williamson, the same screenwriter behind Scream. Pre-Scream, characters in horror movies inhabited a bizarre netherworld where the horror movie genre itself didn’t seem to exist. Someone would, say, hear a noise in the basement and immediately go down to investigate, sans weapon or flashlight, while the audience groaned and shouted warnings from their seats. Scream called attention to all of this. By turning itself into a parody, it created something new and original and actually quite sincere.
Which is why The Following is an especially confusing television show. Nearly every line in the pilot is a cliché, delivered in a manner so lacking in self awareness that it makes Scream feel downright traditional. Kevin Bacon stars as Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who was forced into early retirement after tracking and then getting attacked by serial killer Joe Carroll. The injury left Hardy with a pacemaker and a drinking problem. He’s a loose cannon, a live wire, or, as Joel Carroll puts it, “a flawed hero looking for redemption.” This happens a lot in the pilot, various characters laying out other character’s personality traits the way I imagine Williamson did in his pitch meeting for this show. Hardy’s being brought back (although not as an agent) to help find Carroll (played by James Purefoy), who has escaped from death row after killing a bunch of guards.
While most of the characters are all about telling in the most literal, exposition-heavy sense, Hardy opts more to show. His very movements broadcast that he is damaged. He gulps down a bottle of water with the same intensity he displays when he discovers a slaughtered body. Kevin Bacon has always been a likable actor (what with the six degrees and all), so I was pretty surprised to see how high he ratcheted it up here. I mean, I know he got a lot of praise for The Woodsman and all that, but still, this show is not that. The only trace of the Kevin Bacon that we all know comes in the way he walks. He has this strut that you’ll recognize from Footloose; it’s very distinct, and whenever it appeared on this episode, I would wonder whether he was taking this show as seriously as everyone else was. But then he’d throw a patio chair at a wall and start screaming, and I’d realize that, weirdly, he did.
The Following unspools itself through an alternating series of present-day moments and flashbacks. I’m pretty sure this is a Lost influence, but unlike that show, where the flashbacks were often more compelling than what was happening on the island, these feel rote. Carroll’s jail cell is filled Edgar Allan Poe books because that was Carroll’s obsession. We gradually learn that Carroll was a “brilliant” academic and teacher who captivated anyone who heard him lecture. That’s the word on the street, at least, but for the most part, Carroll’s Poe scholarship doesn’t get much more intensive than your average Poetry in Motion. The word nevermore comes up a lot.
Hardy, in turn, is a scholar on Carroll. He became obsessed with him even before he realized he was guilty, simply by attending his classes. Carroll’s crime was that he killed women by stabbing their eyes out because he believed in “the insanity of art” and that our eyes are the “window in our soul.” Carroll is allegedly very handsome (though I personally think he looks like a poor man’s Hugh Jackman), and so there was a lot of batting of eyelashes from lady students who didn’t understand that that is the worst possible thing you can do at a madman who is obsessed with pupil’s pupils.
Once Hardy agrees to help hunt for Carroll, he starts making the rounds of all the people who used to be in Carroll’s life. He’s accompanied by one female FBI agent — who seems way too immediately annoyed with him considering the reason he retired was because he was attacked by a madman — and another younger male agent who’s a fan boy. This show is very Russian nesting doll when it comes to hierarchy of worship. Everyone seems to have a little buddy who looks up to them.
Hardy goes to visit Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire, and young son. Hardy had an affair with Claire back in flashback time. There’s also a nanny who you don’t pay much attention to, and that’s the whole point. Hardy and Claire have a private discussion where she shows him a letter that we’re not allowed to see even though we assume it just says, “Dear Claire, Did you sleep with the other main character on this show? Love, Joe.” Also, Claire and Hardy discuss their breakup, which was more that one day he just stopped calling and she never heard from him again. By way of an excuse, he offers up, “I work better in people’s pasts, always have.” Tortured dudes with literal broken hearts are the worst.
And then there’s Sarah, played by Lost’s Maggie Grace, who I failed to recognize and I think I’m supposed to know is more famous than I do. For most of the episode, I thought she was the girl who played Lolita in the Jeremy Irons version. Sarah was the only victim to survive Carroll and also one of his former moony students. Hardy saved her life but not her roommate’s because, over the course of this episode, you realize that Hardy’s signature move is to always arrive a little too late to the scene of the crime. It’s like he spent his childhood watching Columbo reruns but didn’t realize that the doddering, out-of-it thing was just a clever schtick in order to disarm suspects, but he instead took it at face value.
Hardy is obsessed with keeping Claire, and especially Sarah, safe. He and his team of computer zoomer-inner-ons realize that a security guard at the prison is the one who helped Carroll escape. They go to that dude’s house, and it’s plastered with missing-dog posters, and then, in a back room, the corpses (mostly) of the dogs themselves, which means that the guard was practicing how to be a serial killer. Hardy’s protégé says he can’t handle the idea of animals getting tortured, and Hardy rolls his eyes and then goes on to gush about how dreamy Carroll was when he was highlighting passages from the Cliff’s Notes version of The Raven.
It’s gradually revealed that Jordy the prison guard isn’t Carroll’s only follower. There are others, lots of them. Early on, you see rows of women waiting at the police station, all of whom had visited Carroll in jail. One of them receives a text message and then strips down to her underwear so that you can see her body is covered in, wait for it, Poe quotes and then stabs herself in the eyes. Warped obsession with serial killers has been known to happen in real life. Ted Bundy, for instance, got married while on trial for the murdering of dozens of women. But the way the show deals with it has nothing to do with investigating the psychological motives behind this. If anything, it seems as enamored with its antagonist as its characters.
The follower thing is what the show is banking on to keep viewers tuned in. Williamson loved 24, and it’s clear that achieving that same addictive quality is his goal here. Jordy and the women are mild ones since you were introduced to them as already members of the cult. The real shockers are supposed to come in the forms of characters you have met but don’t know are working for the other side. Claire’s nanny turns out to be one of them, as does the couple, referred to almost exclusively as the “gay guys” throughout, that lives next door to Sarah. They’re actually straight and all part of Carroll’s diabolical plan, which involves them pretending to be living together in the suburbs as a couple for years in order to rom-com their way into Sarah’s heart and earn her trust so that they’d eventually be able to snatch her through a secret door in her closet that connects her house to theirs. Move over, Sideshow Bob — there’s a new criminal mastermind in town.
The couple spray-paint “Nevermore” on Sarah’s garage, and though it takes him a while, Hardy finally figures out that it’s a Poe reference. He starts screaming that it represents the finality of death and starts screaming demands for GPS systems and satellites. Almost off-mike, you hear one of his random superiors say something like, “Oh, here we go now,” and its clear that this is the Lethal Weapon moment that Kevin Bacon was promised when he agreed to do this show (which I’m betting happened after hearing Kyra Sedgwick told one too many stories about how funny G.W. Bailey was in between takes of The Closer). That’s when he throws the chair I mentioned above, and there might be some howling, and it’s all definitely followed by some tire screeching as he peels rubber over to the not-gay neighbors’ country getaway house.
Which is where Carroll is waiting for him. Hardy knows he’ll be there, which is why he went alone, unarmed, even though Carroll never stipulated either of those things had to happen. Carroll pops out and punches Hardy, and then you can hear Sarah screaming. Except it’s a tape recording, because Sarah is way dead. Her body is lowered hanging from a rope with her eyes gouged out. It’s gross and upsetting. It didn’t make me want to see that happen week after week. Hardy tries to strangle Carroll, but Carroll surrenders just as the other cops bust in just in time — except also too late, which is how this FBI unit rolls.
I can’t believe there’s even more, but there is. Carroll goes back to jail and says Hardy is the only one he will talk to. This is maybe the most nonsense scene of the whole episode, which is saying a lot. He tells Hardy that he wants to write a sequel to his book and that Hardy’s going to write it with him. He tells him he killed Sarah for him, that she was the inciting incident toward Hardy’s finding redemption, and I’m like, Geez, Joe, are you trying to take recapping jobs out of the hands of the writers? Then Hardy breaks Carroll’s fingers, and Carroll shouts that he needs to call Claire, and we see that the not-gay couple and the not-nanny are all on a road trip together with Claire and Carroll’s son. They’re having a good time, too, because doing truly horrible things for a man who you barely know to people who you know really well is, I guess, super fun?