TV Review: The Following “Pilot”

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4/5 Overall Score

Strong storytelling, compels you to know more, Purefoy's performance,

Some believablity issues to be explained in further shows. Hopefully.

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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

When Edgar Allen Poe authored The Raven, the idea of his iconic phrase “nevermore” becoming the calling card for a serial killer lead cult probably never crossed his mind. And yet, that is exactly the case in the Friday debut of Fox’s new crime drama, The Following. The pilot episode brimmed with a potent concoction of compelling characters and tension-fueled pursuit. Whodunit is a misnomer in this case, as the writers make no bones about the identity of the criminal mastermind. A more accurate descriptor perhaps be “howdunit,” as characters are introduced, disappeared, and turned rogue without fulfilling explanations. As a pilot, “Pilot” provides a good example of how good acting and better writing can bring new viewers in and, with any luck, make them series faithfuls.

Kevin Bacon leads a cast that, in large part, is wisely unknown. His character is Ryan Hardy, a mostly disgraced FBI agent turned true crime author. In a former life, Hardy single-handedly took down the season’s notorious serial killer, Joe Carroll, but now spends most of his time drinking and scowling. When Carroll escapes from prison, the FBI puts Hardy in the famous shoes of Michael Corleone, thinking he was out and being pulled back in as the one man who knows Carroll above all.

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We soon discover that Carroll, played by James Purefoy, is more than your average psychopath. He’s the literary type, a college professor and author with an affinity for Edgar Allen Poe. Before his series forming turn, he was happily married. A flashback sequence shows he and his wife laying in loving embrace as she tells him she’s expecting. Not long after we find out that Carroll, perchance, dove a little too deep in the Poe Pool and latched onto the author’s belief that death is the truest form of beauty, specifically that of young women. Being the creative sensitive type, and following the critical failure of his debut novel, he decides to correct things by turning serial murder into his greatest work of art. These murders, he explains to Hardy, make up his great novel, his completion of Poe’s unfinished work. As a result of these extravagances, he’s also a celebrity with dozens of websites and thousands of followers around the world.

It is beautifully meta, this story within a story, and it’s the kind of crazy that drives you to know more. Like the best serials before it – Lost, for example – enjoying The Following comes with a sense of wanting. A wanting to understand; a wanting to know what comes next; a wanting for everyone to get out safely but at the same time not to get out safely. And episode one delivers on that front. Carroll explains the show itself in his final monologue. Hardy is the hero rising. His loss, his failure is the inciting event. Walking away from “Pilot,” there is a palpable expectancy that we’re about to witness the Carroll’s story. Not Hardy’s, not the victim’s, but the killer’s, and just as he wants us to see it.

A number of other characters take stage in support of Bacon and Purefoy. There’s the hard-nosed cop waiting to be won over. The starstruck newbie itching for his hero’s attention. Then there’s Carroll’s wife, and Hardy’s former and inevitable flame, Claire Matthews. Her son also, the cute and kidnapped Kyle, who seems to be the driving force for the season to come. All of these seem like mainstays for future episodes but they lack depth. They fill their purpose in “Pilot” and I could see them becoming interesting as we discover more of their backstories, but for now they’re mostly cardboard cut-outs of what good writing will allow them to become.

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Less memorable are the villian’s henchmen and where the hard questions begin. In Carroll’s employ are the nanny, the gay couple next door, and the wanna-be mass murderer CO. Each of these seem to have long-standing relationships with the main characters, but the viewer is left to wonder how Carroll could have manipulated these people and placed them so perfectly from behind bars. “Pilot” explains it away with Carroll hacking the prison computer system, accessing the internet, and turning his “fans” into a cult. Is it normal for lit professors to also be computer hackers? And, being a mass murderer and all, no one thought to check up on what he was doing on those computers, even if he was thought to be offline?

It stretches believability but the writing is just good enough to give it a pass. This time. Like other great shows, there’s something here that makes you want to believe it’s possible, that maybe some explanation will come along to wipe it all away. Or even that the show gets good enough that we can forgive it in the name of growing pains. Still, let’s hope being a criminal mastermind doesn’t mean Carroll can do and access anything he pleases.

The real triumph of The Following is that it isn’t afraid to let you fall. From the very beginning viewers are introduced to the beautiful and lone survivor, Sarah Fuller. The show dotes on her. She’s in danger, vulnerable and exposed, and it’s easy to care about her. She’s also central enough to the episode’s storyline it lulls you into a sense of security. When the ending comes and you discover her fate, it’s a shock to the system and honestly a little heart breaking. It’s events like this that make Carroll’s words linger in the mind after the show has finished. The writers are openly manipulating you but Purefoy’s performance transcends the character barrier; it’s not the writers doing anything, it’s Carroll. He is the writer. The only one we need to care about, anyway.

Going into The Following, I didn’t know what to expect. Kevin Bacon’s performances have been hit or miss in the past, and, indeed, his work here is occasionally one-note and smacks a bit too much of David Caruso in CSI: Miami. But it fits, just as most other parts fit, and the high notes pull everything else just a little bit higher from the muck. Believability is an issue, no doubt about it, but the writers are skilled and, if this episode is any indication, we’ll likely see some explanations surface in coming episodes. I came in cold to The Following but next Friday I’ll definitely be tuning in to see how things unfold.

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Author: Christopher Coke View all posts by
Chris is a lifelong gamer that brings his writing degree to bear at Vagary TV, Rift Watchers, and Game By Night. His current game of choice is RIFT, though he can often be seen plumbing the depths of Call of Duty, Darksiders, and virtually everything Rockstar.