At New York Comic Con last month, I watched the premiere of The Following, Fox’s serial killer drama starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, which will premiere January 21st. It’s taken this long for me to make sense of how I felt about it.
There’s no question, it’s daring. It absolutely pushes the boundaries. My question is, do those boundaries really need pushing? And if they do, do they need pushing on network television in a weekly series?
You might think, given their usual roles, that Purefoy would be the cop and Bacon the killer, but the reverse is the case. Purefoy is the charming, professorial serial killer of 14 coeds, around whom an entire cult has formed—a “following” of other killers and killers-to-be eager to do his will—and Bacon is the former FBI agent who once put him in jail.
At the beginning of the pilot, Purefoy’s character, Joe Carroll, a former English professor obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, escapes from prison. Like Poe, he has work left unfinished. So Bacon’s character, Ryan Hardy, is called in to consult on recapturing him.
Bacon’s character is—at least in the pilot—no surprise. He’s a burned out, alcoholic ex-FBI agent hiding vodka in water bottles. *yawn* [Mild spoiler in white, highlight to read] I was not even surprised that he had had an affair with Purefoy’s character’s wife during the investigation.
Purefoy is charming and, well, hot. I mean, I can totally see how he could get the college girls to go home with him. When I originally heard about the series, my first thought was “James Purefoy once a week? Where do I sign up?”
But after seeing the pilot, I’m just not so sure.
There’s a common expression among readers of thrillers used to describe scenes where the violence is gratuitous or extreme, scenes that are unnecessary to the plot or character development, scenes which serve little purpose but titillation of the reader: torture porn.
Stephen King said in Danse Macabre, his marvelous history of the horror genre,
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.
Torture porn lies somewhere between the final two. It horrifies us and grosses us out.
You’ll find torture porn on the big screen, too, and occasionally on cable. But very rarely on network television. Because what if people were just flipping channels and ran across that? They could cry foul, and deservedly so. So the gore here isn’t overly visual. When a woman who is one of “the following” [spoiler in white, highlight to see] stabs herself through the eye with an icepick, you don’t see blood or brain matter or anything. In fact, they seem to be fond of the “shock and cut to commercial” or “shock and cut scene.”
No, the disturbing aspect of this show is more problematic than that. We have plenty of serial killer shows. We have Criminal Minds and we have Dexter. But this is a horse of a different color. This is a show about a serial killer who trains other serial killers. In the pilot alone, we get to see how he works them up, one step at a time, from smaller crimes and killing animals to killing people. And yes, I do mean we see it.
If the spoilers above bothered you, you might want to stop here, because without giving away a fairly complete scene, it’s impossible to discuss this.
Okay. I’m still putting the next paragraph in white. Then the discussion will follow.
Purefoy enlists the aid of a prison guard who has become one of the following. When Bacon et al descend on the guard’s house, they find missing pet posters from various places all over the house and a video of the guard playing with said missing pets. Then they find his kill room in the garage and a half-dead dog.
This is the kind of thing I mean. The implication—the posters and video—would have been enough. Anyone who knows anything at all about serial killers could have figured it out, and the cops could have discussed it. But instead of leaving it there, they had to go for the horror and then the gross-out...heading into torture-porn territory. The terror comes from not knowing who to trust, not from the blood and guts.
But even the torture porn doesn’t bother me all that much—it’s just bad writing. It will probably garner a lot of controversy because of the blood and guts, but that’s not what keeps niggling at me.
No, what really makes me wonder is the question of whether we really need a television show that shows us step-by-step about the creation of a cult of killers, which this one seems bound to do. Especially on network television.
And the answer is, I am still not sure. It could be elegantly done. It could be beautiful. Certainly there were moments of each. But over 15 shows per season? Well, we’ll see.
Laura K. Curtis lives in Westchester, N.Y., with her husband and two madcap Irish Terriers who’ve taught her how easily love can co-exist with the desire to kill. She blogs at Women of Mystery and maintains an online store at TorchSongs GlassWorks. She can also be found on Twitter and poking her nose into all sorts of trouble in various spots around the web.
Read all posts by Laura K. Curtis on Criminal Element.