The Following – Episode 1 (Pilot) Review

Matt Smith reviews the pilot episode of the new US TV drama The Following…

All I’ve seen of Kevin Bacon recently are those fantastic, but let’s face it, nonsensical, adverts for a mobile (pronounced ‘mobbl’) phone. As much as I love the ads (though doesn’t Footloose Kevin Bacon look old!?), it was time for something new.

As if by magic, Kevin Bacon was being grabbed at by a bunch of hands on an advert on Sky Atlantic for The Following.

The show’s premise is former field agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon) comes in from the cold after Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), serial killer and Edgar Allan Poe aficionado, escapes from a maximum-security facility. He uses his substantial powers of persuasion to bring in other serial killers, creating a cult that terrorises Hardy, his team of investigators and victims from Carroll’s previous crimes.

So it’s serial killer of the week, with an overarching plot that has significant back story. So far, and definitely from the pilot, so good. Of course it has the small problem all pilots have in that they have to introduce the characters when it so obviously wants to cover ground on the plot. But for the most part a good job is done in blending introductions into the storytelling, mainly through the use of flashbacks. So it’s not just sitting there telling you the story with exposition (for the most part), but uses the neatly transitioned to flashbacks to provide back story for all the important characters you’re going to follow in the coming months.

The characters are however a mixed bag. Joe Carroll, the menacing villain, is a mixture of great character and great performance. Hannibal Lector-like, but less theatrical creating a character that at least seems more real. He’s not the most intelligent, but he’s conniving and cunning, along with a physical presence that makes you feel he could just throw pretence out the window and throw down with the hero if he gets bored.

On the other end of the physical spectrum is Ryan Hardy. Troubled with alcohol problems and a pacemaker limiting the amount of running, jumping and fighting he can do, he’s been made a wreck by the troubles of his past run ins with Carroll. The character seems like he’d be a little bland without Carroll there, for better or worse, and it’s apt that when we run into him for the first time he’s not got much of anything, or anyone, to be getting on with. He goes from this to being a very popular man, who is the only person anyone wants to talk to, which brings a possible complication with the alcohol problems.

The minor characters are the ones who let the team down. Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore), the student-like character that idolises Hardy, seems too genuinely light and happy considering he’s spent significant years studying Carroll’s appalling crimes and trying to track down criminals himself. Or at least you’d think he had, except the first time we hear him he makes a simple mistake when giving a briefing about Carroll (a concession made to introduce exposition, an unforgiveable scene).

Jennifer Mason (Jeananne Goossen) plays the stock angry person on the good team you sometimes see in these things. Not fleshed out enough, it seemed she was just there to give the viewers someone who was annoying but not evil. Why they’d do that I don’t know, and it seems we won’t ever know as the character has been dropped from the rest of the series. No hope for a Team America-style reveal at the end of the series as Mason reveals her true reasons for hating Kevin Bacon, unfortunately.

A few of these stock elements creep their way in to The Following. The choice of leaving the lights off when looking for the bad guy, who is hiding, in order to build tension cheaply. The look of the show, which is similar to some of the other shows coming out of America (Awake is probably the closest I’ve seen). Production design and costume all do a good enough job, while the music choices all seem to do the steps by the book, on the brink of cliché as opposed to adding another layer to add to the atmosphere. Similar to Hardy’s alcohol problems, some of the touches seem like unneeded clichés added at the last minute.

Dark and brooding is the order of the day in terms of atmosphere. Gothic overtones, provided by Edgar Allan Poe, introduce dark motifs, going hand in hand with the graphic visuals. Gruesome murders and grisly scenes (alliteration as the awesome of all analysis) are waiting for Hardy, but with a vaguely Homeland vibe as no one can seem to be trusted and anything can happen (and it turns out, Kevin Bacon was an Ape all along).

Carroll has essentially got sleeper agents waiting to carry out his orders, providing readymade tension as every line can be interpreted in different ways, and we can go online and discuss things and everyone will talk about it and oh my God did you see last night’s episode when the person did the thing to the other person? Okay, it’s not the most original, and I can’t shake the feeling some things have been put in to drum up ratings as opposed to telling the story well, but that’s the way of it. And apparently it’s mandatory to have the smart villain be captured as part of his plan.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. SPOILER ALERT There’s a love interest that is actually the serial killer’s wife! It’s the darkest farce I’ve ever heard of. Further connecting the two main characters, the whole born-to-be-adversaries element is being pushed, so hopefully the relationship between Hardy and Carroll becomes the crux everything works around.

And it’s in a scene featuring Hardy squaring off to Carroll in which the motifs and premise of the series are neatly explained. The hero’s call to action, the idea of Carroll telling a story with Hardy and of course the cultish serial killer of the week idea. Hopefully the series drops what it didn’t do so well (and, thankfully and frankly, doesn’t need) and moves on to building the better elements. As long as it doesn’t fall off the tight rope into gimmicky with the serial killer of the week, and gives us enough of the Carroll-Hardy battle of wits, it should be an entertaining enough series.

Matt Smith

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