April 30, 2013



If the first season of THE FOLLOWING stands for anything, it’s that the significant difference between the best cable dramas and the vast majority of their network counterparts hasn’t been about the ability to depict extreme violence.  The Following was as relentlessly violent as anything this side of The Walking Dead (and much more disturbing, since its victims were flesh-and-blood humans), but that creative freedom didn’t mean much in the face of its ever-increasing narrative and tonal incoherence.

The season’s final episode, written by series creator Kevin Williamson and directed by Marcos Siega, was a useful guide to why The Following has been compelling and jolting throughout its run but almost never satisfying. The show has tried to meld the mad genius serial-killer genre of Silence of the Lambs (and its countless imitators, including the current Hannibal) with the action-adventure of 24, and the two have been oil and water more than peanut butter and chocolate.  Even worse, the demands of each–as well as the requirement that this be a continuing series–have made the other sillier and less effective.

The year’s final hour presented us with not one but two damsels in distress–FBI agent Parker (Annie Parisse), buried alive by minions of uber-loony Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), and Joe’s ex-wife Claire (Natalie Zea), held personally captive by him in the lighthouse where his only novel concluded.  It stood to reason that only one of the women would make it to the end credits, and since Claire is the love of hero Ryan Hardy’s (Kevin Bacon) life, that made it pretty certain that Parker would run out of oxygen before Ryan could save her.  Once she’d been dispensed with, it was time for the final (maybe) confrontation between Ryan and Joe, and that’s where the wheels, only tenuously on in the first place, of The Following‘s bus really came off.  The show has been undercutting Joe as a villain since he broke out of prison halfway through the season; although that move made dramatic sense (it was getting tiresome to have Joe manipulating the whole world from his cell in every episode), once Joe was ensconced in a manor house, surrounded by dozens of adoring acolytes, and pouring booze down his throat, he became considerably less terrifying–more like a mid-level druglord in any typical TV procedural.  Joe kept insisting that he and Ryan were writing his “novel,” but every sign of his writing that we saw was just awful (the one witty part of the finale was when Ryan broke Joe’s composure by telling him what a terrible writer he was), and toward the end, Joe couldn’t even come up with his own murder plans, cribbing instead from his followers.  His villainy lost stature by the week.

By tonight’s finale, Joe was pretty much a wreck (it felt like young Joey could have successfully taken a run at him), and Williamson and Siega were unable to stage Ryan and Claire’s escape from his clutches in any kind of convincing way.  One moment they were tied up and Joe had both an ice-pick and a gun; the next they were free.  The final battle between Joe and Ryan was even worse; apparently in the interests of a lingering possibility that Joe not be dead, Ryan didn’t get to kill Joe himself (his earlier dispatching of the minion who’d buried Parker had more impact), as Joe supposedly blew up, with only “fragments” of body found.  Despite the supposed dental records match, anyone who’s ever seen a Halloween or Friday the 13th movie knows Joe could well return in Season 2.

The epilogue apparently counted on viewers not remembering the scene a few weeks ago when Joe promised Ryan’s next-door follower with benefits Molly (Jennifer Ferrin) that she’d get the privilege of offing Ryan, as it was treated as a big shock when she burst from nowhere in splatter-movie style to stab both Ryan and Claire.  (Bacon will certainly return next season, but Zea is more of a question mark–personally, I’m rooting for Claire to die and Zea to return to Justified.)   Perhaps the biggest cheat of the finale was that the one genuinely creepy character in the entire show, ex-fake-nanny Emma (Valorie Curry), barely even made an appearance.

Kevin Williamson made his horror-movie name with the Scream series, which parodied the tropes of the genre even as it used them, and The Following suggests that he can’t really handle the genre when dealing with it head-on.  The characters were either wrecked by inconsistency (Joe) or pitifully underdeveloped (everyone else, including Ryan–whose alcoholism and heart problems vanished somewhere along the way–Claire and Parker).  Williamson can pull off self-contained set-pieces, and he can make viewers jump with sudden violence and loud music cues, but he’s been unable to sustain his story or his characters.

The Following, while no sensation in the ratings, was successful enough to earn a Season 2 renewal, and the scorched-earth possibilities of the season finale have the advantage of letting Williamson and FOX make any number of decisions as to what that second season will be.  Joe, Claire, Emma–even Ryan, technically–could all vanish from Season 2, which could develop an entire new story or bring back Joe’s cult.  It would be a good idea for all concerned to think long and hard about a coherent, logical storyline before making any hasty decisions about where The Following goes next, because right now the show is in serious danger of going, lemming-like, over a cliff.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."