Follow Me Over This Cliff (Or, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’s Fading Star)

Last time I did this was fun.  Let’s have another terrible review of a terrible entertainment option.  Today’s target?

The Following.

Spoiler Alert, etc, etc.  Here I’ll be talking about the show, its characters, its plotlines, up through the current episode.  If that’s troubling to you, this is the point at which you should turn off your computer and rethink your life, because if you’re able to be significantly upset by prematurely learning some vague details about a show that you’re watching after the party, perhaps the decisions that brought you to this point were not the best ones.  (Though if you’re still watching the show, I doubt if there’s much I could spoil for you, as the show spoils itself by virtue of running headlong into virtually every cliche in the suspense/crime procedural/gritty hero/criminal mastermind genre simultaneously.)  That said, if you don’t watch The Following, there probably isn’t very much here for you.

This, like so many other programs on television in the years since CSI, is a program that has (or rather, had) a fantastic, if not brilliant central idea.  Two diametrically opposed alpha dudes at the height of their bad-asgard-itude.  A perfect rivalry.  Moby Dick and Ahab.  Batman and the Joker.  Sherlock and Moriarty.  But, not so fast.  They’re also flawed in ways which are kind of crippling for them.  The good guy is a washed-out cop, drowning in an alcoholic haze because of the girl he couldn’t save; the bad guy is an evil mastermind, able to predict everybody’s moves ten steps before they make them, influencing a cult of hundreds, making the whole world dance like puppets to every twitch of his diabolical marionette’s fingers: except he’s in jail.  Why?  Because the good guy caught him already.

But that’s not the ending, it’s the beginning.  Nice twist.  So in season one, Joe (the bad guy) effects his escape from prison entirely through coded messages to his followers, escapes, inherits a lush and lavish house in the wilderness (untraceable by the Feds despite the scads of people living there), and proceeds to make life hell for Ryan (the good guy) who, by the way, is dating Joe’s ex-wife.

Great fun!  The villain is able to predict the hero’s movements enough to harry him and evade him at every turn, but the hero is sufficiently broken/enraged/off the rails to keep the villain from getting too comfortable.  At season’s end, Joe is dead (no body, of course, because if there’s a body, there’s no sequel) but his followers attack Ryan and Joe’s ex-wife at home because there are no happy endings in a show like this.  She dies, he lives, season over.

I want Season One back.

Season One took a situation which was recognizable but did some fresh things with it.  Kevin Bacon holds his own.  The villain guy (whatever his name is) is devious and British and sort of dashing.  Lots of gratuitous violence.  And the show even had a solid arc to it.

Problem is, the arc was completed.

This ain’t a sitcom, where you have the same characters, week in and week out, getting into some new troublesome situation and learning from it and then sharing a beer in a booth at the end of the night (How I Met Your Mother) or sharing a whiskey and a cigar on a balcony (Boston Legal) or tossing your kids in the pool (Surviving Jack, a new favorite this season).  This is a drama, and for longevity in a drama, you have to have growth for the characters, you have to have new and compelling storylines.  But they’ve left those things out in Season Two of The Following.

Joe was dead at the end of Season One? Surprise, no he wasn’t.  Except nobody was surprised, because there was no body, and also, the show wasn’t going to cut its rather-dashing vaguely-psychotic yet still-sort-of-charming main villain.  Oh, and neither is his ex-wife, but we won’t reveal that until halfway into the season, when it will have more impact for the hero.  Except we won’t have it mean anything for him at all except a quick sigh of relief before she becomes just a burden on him, just like in the first season.  And remember Ryan’s sidekick from Season One?  The yin to his yang, the by-the-book, hey-don’t-chase-that-suspect-down-that-dark-alley-without-backup guy, the maybe-we-shouldn’t-torture-the-murderous-and-suicidal-cultist-for-information-because-it’s-wrong guy?  Yeah, that guy takes a hard left in Season Two and now he’s the one beating suspects bloody and shooting unarmed people three times, and Ryan is now the one reining him in.  Because that character arc makes sense.

Characters need to develop to keep the viewer interested over time, but, and here’s the important part, those changes have to make sense.  The audience has to be able to stick with a character and understand why they changed in this particular way and even, on some level, empathize.  The changes on this show insult our intelligence.

The hero is the same.  No surprise there: people love Sherlock because Sherlock is an insufferable bastard, always.  People loved House because House was an insufferable bastard, always.  There are inklings of growth, but Ryan is who he is.  There’s an attempt at softening him with the character of his cousin, but her role in the show hasn’t been crucial in any way; she seems to be more of a love interest for the spiraling Mike (the sidekick) than anything.  TV shows are weird like that; in most narratives we like our heroes to be dynamic but in TV shows, for the most part, the ones closest to us have to stay the same.

Then there’s Joe, the villain.  Same old tricks, same old vendetta, except this time he’s taking on organized religion.  Interesting take, but he can’t leave Ryan alone, and that will be what ruins him this time, while the religion is just a red herring.  We also have to accept as reasonable that Joe was able to show up to an existing cult following another cult leader, kill that leader, and assume control of the cult with barely a hitch in his stride, which, I’m sorry, is a stretch even when you’re dealing with brainwashed and highly impressionable individuals.  There’s a bit of brilliant characterization at work in Joe that I have to mention.  He’s a writer, and he’s imagined his conflict with Ryan to be the stuff of legend.  He will kill Ryan, at some nebulous point in the future of his own personal narrative hat we will never reach, but he keeps having the opportunity to JUST KILL HIM ALREADY and he simply won’t do it.  “The time’s not right,” he laments, before walking out the door and leaving Ryan hogtied on the floor of the deserted shack in the middle of nowhere.  (Don’t worry, the Feds will be along shortly to rescue him.)  “There’s so much more to see,” he proclaims, flitting off into serial killer boo-boo crazy nutmuffin land.  I think they nailed the writer’s compulsion to seek perfection, but how many times are we to swallow it?  AT SOME POINT, simple common sense should kick in and tell the villain, no, this time I really should be done with him, and find another White Whale to chase.  Unfortunately, Joe’s voice of reason — who suggested that he do just that — has been killed off.  Oops!

So those two cannot change to save their lives.  Then, on the other end of the spectrum, are the++ two characters who have made complete and abrupt detours into psychotown.  Mike, the sidekick, goes from as straight-arrow as you can get in Season One into a frothing lunatic in Season Two.  The trigger?  The cultists killed his father.  Okay… that’s sad for the character… and it makes sense that he’d consider a turn to darkness in the wake of it.  The problem is, the creators have thrust this development on us and the crust on the pizza hasn’t even risen yet.  Dad gets killed, Mike immediately goes and beats the haberdashery out of a suspect.  They track down one of the masterminds, Mike shoots her down in front of witnesses.  There’s a progression, a development, needed before a change like that, but the writers chose instead to drive him off the cliff of plausibility into the swamp of disbelief.

Joining him in the swamp is Claire, Joe’s ex-wife, Ryan’s now-ex-lover.  A severe point of contention in the first season, her death tied up a lot of loose ends, but the directors have decided that they like this plotline firmly knotted and resurrected her through the magic of witness protection.  Okay, fine.  But in the meantime, she, too, took a detour into psychotown, and is consumed with a blind rage to kill her former husband in the defense of the world that might be.  Her change is more palatable — she nearly died herself and has had some time to stew on it — but what’s NOT palatable is the fact that she’s able to get involved at all.  She gives the FBI the slip (what skills does she have to accomplish this?  She sneaks out a bathroom window.  We’ve got her building locked down, but OH DONDRAPER, we forgot about that one bathroom window), uses a TV reporter to broadcast a coded message to Joe (WTF?  How does a TV reporter have the ability to decide what goes on the air?), and walks herself straight into an ambush at the meeting place.  Oh, but she’s a bad-asgard now, so she kills two people and vanishes into the wilderness.  Straight into the arms of another ambush.  Sigh.

I could go into the intricacies of the show; the way it repeats and repackages plotlines, the way it pigeonholes characters, the way it’s so predictable in its “shocking twists”, but really the most offensive thing is the way the show insults the intelligence of its audience.  Ryan is constantly “going in without backup” against the orders of every FBI official in sight, but he never gets reprimanded in any official capacity, certainly never arrested for obstruction.  As a result of going off alone, he’s routinely captured, shot at, injured, or forced to watch the cult doing horrible things to innocent people because HE DOESN’T HAVE ANY BACKUP.  He makes the worst possible decisions and is never forced to pay for them.  The most glaring of these choices was opting to turn himself in to the cult rather than shoot his captor down (any protagonist worth half his salt can easily take down a single gun-toting baddy in a one-on-one).  Once captured, Joe forces him to watch an execution but then COMPLETELY FAILS TO KILL HIM.  What does Ryan gain?  Nothing, Joe escapes (again).  What does he lose?  NOTHING.  The FBI shows up moments later and, okay, Ryan witnessed another innocent person being murdered, but he’s seen that before; he already knew Joe was totally evil.

Here’s what’s troubling to me about that (more as a writer than as an audience member, though Audience Member Me is not really pleased about it either).  DECISIONS WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE KILL PLOT.  STUPID DECISIONS WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE PULL OUT PLOT’S FINGERNAILS THEN BLUDGEON IT WITH HAMMERS AND BURY IT FACEDOWN IN AN UNMARKED GRAVE.  When the things your characters do fail to have any effect or drive the story forward in any appreciable way, that’s a waste of your time and the audience’s time, and it’s bad storytelling.

Despite all this, I can’t stop watching the show.  Not because I love it; I can’t stand it.  But because I want to know just how the creators are going to insult their audience next.  And I know, that makes me part of the problem.  It’s the Reality TV argument: love it or hate it (and I hate hate hate hate HATE HATE HATE Reality TV), if I’m watching it, then I’m contributing to its success.

But. (There is always a but.)  I keep watching it for another reason as well, and it’s the same reason I watch anything terrible.  (This is where my wife would make a joke about The Big Lebowski, a film I will defend to my last breath as brilliant.)  And that reason is this:  If a steaming heap of rancid owl pellets like The Following can be commercially successful, then maybe there’s hope for a schlub like me.

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