For much of The Following’s pilot episode, I had a feeling of familiarity breeding contempt. So much of what was happening was so familiar; the main characters were clichés; Joe Carroll’s motivation/inspiration for his murder spree (Edgar Allen Poe) had been done recently in a film (The Raven, starring John Cusack as Poe) and even the dialogue seemed torn straight out of the pages of ‘Serial Killer Drama for Dummies’. But I liked the way the episode ended, with Joe telling Ryan Hardy that he had a new story that they’d tell together, as three of Joe’s followers took his son away and he revealed that he knew about the affair Ryan had with his wife.
It set up an interesting premise for the show, one that could potentially be very compelling to watch, but the problems with the pilot were numerous, and a big step up in the quality of writing was required to make this into a show with longevity. So it’s unfortunate to report that my enthusiasm for the last 5-10 minutes of the pilot disappeared while watching ‘Chapter Two’, which is a messy, boring episode cluttered with flashbacks that does little to develop the idea.
When I wrote about the show last week, I was desperately hoping that the flashbacks in the pilot would be a one off, but this week they are back with a vengeance, and it’s something that is already irritating and totally unnecessary. Flashbacks worked in Lost because they enhanced the story, and that show also had great characters and a compelling storyline. Almost every show that has tried to incorporate flashbacks into its story since has failed because they detract from what’s happening right now in the show. In this episode, Hardy has flashbacks that show the development of his relationship with Carroll’s wife Claire, while Emma Hill (the nanny of Claire’s child who has kidnapped him) remembers her first meeting with Carroll and we also see her first murder, when she kills her mother (who we’re supposed to believe drove Emma to kill her by criticising her looks and lifestyle all the time) in front of Jacob (Nico Tortorella), another of Carroll’s followers.
Having the occasional flashback is bad enough, but there are so many in this episode (at least four) that they feel more like time-fillers than plot development devices. We haven’t even seen any flashbacks which show exactly how Joe managed to convince so many people to hang on his every word and commit horrific crimes for him (or just to impress him), which doesn’t help show him as the charismatic man he’s believed to be (James Purefoy is a reasonable enough actor, but the script isn’t giving him enough to go on to let him show Carroll as a charismatic guru or as a terrifying psychotic murderer).
Carroll and his followers being inspired by Edgar Allen Poe is something that is also already grating; the pilot episode set up the idea perfectly well, having Kevin Bacon explaining how each murder or violent act is inspired by Poe’s work just becomes abstract noise that distracts rather than informs. Carroll took his cue from Poe, we get it, no-one really needs to know which line from which chapter of which story ‘inspired’ one of Carroll’s followers to set a man on fire.
Elsewhere, tension is building between Emma, Jacob and Paul, with Paul seemingly jealous of the relationship between Emma and Jacob, and claiming that he doesn’t like being around children (presumably there’s a flashback in a future episode that will explain why). Jordy, the prison guard who helped Carroll escape, commits his first murders and then makes his way to Claire’s house, seemingly with the intention of killing her. He gets her alone but wants to be face-to-face with Hardy, explaining that he’s supposed to kill her for Carroll. Hardy is able to shoot him and save Claire, and when he later confronts Carroll, he is slightly put off by the news that Hardy only injured Jordy and didn’t kill him.
There are many things happening in this episode, and many strands to explore, but none of them are well written or do much to progress the story. It’s still hard to buy into Joe Carroll as a cult leader, and the writing is still reliant on clichés and weak dialogue. The Following is, on paper at least, a high concept show that should make compelling TV. But in reality, it’s struggling to make its mark.