Let’s not talk about The Following, a panderingly gore-heavy and meanderingly uninventive show about a cult of serial killers who have been instructed by a Poe-preaching ex-teacher named Joe Carroll to make the life of former FBI agent Ryan Hardy a living hell. Let’s talk instead about the fact that enough people (around 7 million, sensibly down from a 10 million+ premiere) watch The Following such that FOX has renewed it for a second season, something that appears to have panicked creator Kevin Williamson and start Kevin Bacon into coming up with a plausible turning point (rather than an ending) to the first season. “Kill me,” shouts Ryan Hardy at his literary nemesis: “They’ll never see that twist coming. (And also, it’ll get me out of my contract!)” Sadly, the show pulls back from this, with Joe having almost certainly faked his own death (“You can’t kill me, I’m already dead,” he quotes, at length), and with Ryan stabbed in yet another instance of horrible FBI surveillance. (Seriously, these cultists have abducted agents out of their homes, hotels, and heavily guarded emergency centers.) Still, like a zombie, he’s sure enough to come back next year, shambling somewhat drunkenly onward, because that’s what you do when you’re a television show.
This is why I’ve lost interest in The Walking Dead. Why I’m somewhat in a sense of trepidation about the as-yet unfinished Game of Thrones series. Why I’m finding it difficult to watch Revenge with a straight face. You need a beginning, middle, and an end to your story, and as we saw clearly from the meta-theatrical antics of antagonist Carroll on The Following, all he had was a lot of hackneyed plot. In fifteen episodes, the only plot development we got was that Hardy believed himself to be under a death curse (in which everybody he loves dies, which, surprise, happens to all of us . . . or is something we inflict upon someone else) and that he was in love with Joe’s ex-wife (a “surprise” revealed halfway through the . . . first episode). Oh, and as a moody teenager, he murdered the man who killed his father (by forcing the druggie to overdose in a bout of poetic justice). Aside from that, the only thing that changed from week to week was the implausibility of this cult (which at one point was affiliated with some sort of anti-government militia that ran its high-level computer network out of a BSDM club) and the ever-rising body count, particularly of those on Hardy’s team. (I’m not sure if we should congratulation Shawn Ashmore on surviving, or send him our condolences.)
As The Following reached its conclusion, the writers appeared to run out of ideas. There’s only so many times Hardy or Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea), Carroll’s former wife, can surrender their weapons and walk directly into a trap, but nobody told the writers that. You’d think that someone clever enough to use a buried-alive victim to walk a bunch of FBI members into a sniper’s nest would understand how to actually hit one of their targets, but apparently not. Despite knowing that there were apparently double-agents all over the place, a good guy turned out to be a bad guy in no fewer than seven episodes. There isn’t a convention of the genre that wasn’t obeyed, which made Carroll’s hand-wringing plotting all the sillier. The Following even announced, right of the bat, that Hardy could not be killed until the final episode (as if we didn’t already know that by network up-fronts), which sure took a lot of the suspense out of all those supposedly life-and-death moments.
However, as it turns out (and as CSI and all the countless knock-offs have shown us), audiences like predictability. They like to see a hero (or an anti-hero, these days) confront and overcome adversity. They don’t like to be troubled by the morality of someone like Hardy (or Jack Bauer) torturing criminals in order to get information, and they actually appreciate the senseless violence, the gorier the better, because in their minds that’ll make it all the more satisfying when the perpetrator is eventually caught. (It’s a lot like wrestling, where the heel riles up the crowds . . . except that wrestling makes a lot more sense than The Following.) Originality in sitcoms like Arrested Development or Community is punished by viewers, whereas laugh-track-friendly fare like The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men keep trucking along, neat little joke-delivery systems that are known more for their ability to get from point A to point B within twenty-two minutes than in the style with which they do so. Dramas face an even harsher upward climb: without a mysterious enough hook or a procedural bait, it becomes almost impossible to convince network viewers to keep tuning in. The Good Wife has managed to avoid doing the same type of legal case twice in any of its episodes–there always seems to be some other trick or back-court shenanigan going on–and because of that, it has remained on the bubble for all of its four seasons.
Watching television has become, in my opinion, more about hanging out (or being titillated by) your favorite actors than about the show itself; how else to explain the majority of programming on USA? Plot moves at a glacier pace, characters are rarely killed (unless the actors leave for greener pastures), and like The Simpsons, nothing ever changes. At least movies have the decency to bill a sequel as a sequel; television shows, which never finish, pretend to evolve when they merely revolve (like doors), regurgitating the same old tropes over and over again for a too-easily entertained audience. Eight years of 24, in which the only thing that really changed were the plots . . . and yet, they’re the one specific thing I can’t remember the slightest thing about. At least give us variations on the familiar, as Doctor Who does on a weekly basis (despite having been on and off the air for like fifty seasons); people look fondly back at Buffy and Angel because they threw in musical, silent, and puppet episodes that felt like nothing else on television, while still fitting the premise of the show. Can’t get away with that on The Vampire Diaries, although I’ll give Supernatural some long-lasting brownie points for trying every now and again. (Then again, the margin for “success” on the CW hardly qualifies their material as “network” shows.)
Let me be clear: I don’t want The Following to have some sort of bizarre genre-altering episode; it’s a thriller, and thrillers can only get away with so much before audiences stop gripping their sofa cushions. (My favorite, Funny Games, lost a lot of people during a key “remote” moment.) But might it be so much to expect that it at least be as clever in subverting expectations as Williamson’s Scream once was? You’ve got killers imitating Edgar Allen Poe, but instead of a creative and disgusting twist on the Pit and the Pendulum or the Cask of Amontillado, we got a dude who lit people on fire in broad daylight, another who butchered all the members of a sorority, and a bunch of generic soldier-types with axes and guns. Even if The Following were to have literally copied Poe’s signature horrors, they would have been more original than the by-the-numbers slaughter that went on this season. Imagine, if you will, that every episode of The X-Files had dealt with a person who claimed to have been abducted by an alien in the same way; in the 90’s, that show wouldn’t have run for nine years. Today, I’m not entirely sure that audiences wouldn’t chomp at the bit for an opportunity to sit down and tune out with a familiar TV show, a familiar beer, and a familiar meal.
Cult was a swiftly cancelled, and yet its premise seems more accurate than The Following‘s: in it, an ex-journalist investigates a cult that’s sprung up around the watching of a terrible television show called Cult (which is essentially the CW’s show-within-a-show version of The Following). Given the way people tastelessly watch The Following, the blind viewing the blind, we’re one step away from becoming a cult ourselves. So don’t be mindless: stop following The Following.