One of the promos for Fox’s new show The Following, which premiered last night in the 9 p.m. time slot, claims, “You won’t believe it’s not on cable.” One’s initial assumption might be that the network is trying to say that the new show equals the quality of the hour-long, meticulously detailed, brilliantly written cable dramas we’ve come to love—shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
One of the promos for Fox’s new show The Following, which premiered last night in the 9 p.m. time slot, claims, “You won’t believe it’s not on cable.”
One’s initial assumption might be that the network is trying to say that the new show equals the quality of the hour-long, meticulously detailed, brilliantly written cable dramas we’ve come to love—shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
This claim knowingly throws shade on the rest of their programming, but it’s also an intriguingly bold statement. Fox is not really trying to say that, though—they just mean it’s got a lot of violence.
This isn’t to say that The Following isn’t a good show. In fact, I think it has the potential for greatness. A passion project from Kevin Williamson—writer of the Scream movies and creator of Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries—it stars Kevin Bacon in his first television role as a former FBI agent pursuing a serial-killer cult.
Ironically, when Bacon started looking at television scripts, he was only interested in doing cable, so there’s something to be said for the fact that Williamson changed Bacon’s mind. Can a show on network television ever be as good as a show on a cable channel? Kevin Bacon seems to think so, but I’m not
You can almost forgive them for trying to push the violent/scary factor. The highest-rated show on cable is The Walking Dead, which regularly features a sick level of gore set in a post-apocalyptic world where zombies lurk around corners and roam in herds, waiting to chew someone’s intestines out or eat their
Turn on NBC—you get Revolution, set in a post-apocalyptic world where the power’s gone out. (Clearly, one is more exciting than the other.) But what executives at Fox overlook is that The Walking Dead also boasts excellent writing, strong characters and compelling, intelligent themes.
The fact that cable shows have way more freedom with their material cannot be dismissed, but it’s about so much more than that.
It’s a myth that network executives want to give us watered-down, inoffensive programming because they’re concerned about our moral fiber. The networks have their hands tied because they’re required to abide by
Federal Communications Commission regulations, and cable is not. It also boils down to commercials.
Paying your monthly cable bill implies that you’re OK with sex, violence and profanity in your shows. Since literally anyone can get network television, executives are much more reliant on advertising money—so they have to please their sponsors, most of whom are concerned about audiences boycotting their products if they advertise on “controversial” shows.
So you’ll never turn on your local channels and see Walter White cooking meth or Dexter Morgan slicing and dicing a torso. Someone, somewhere, would complain, and people would lose money.
I don’t really watch many network shows, but I do have a long list of cable shows that I love, and I think AMC and HBO make the strongest television, hands down. The heads of Fox, and probably all the networks, know that pretty much everyone agrees with me.
But I don’t think the claim that cable is better than network is always true. Although I’m a fan of both, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a much better show than True Blood, and delivered many similar plot devices with better dialogue and fewer orgies. And as much as I love The Walking Dead, I don’t think the level of storytelling on that show could ever compare to Lost.
Once in a while, network programming can be truly great.
For the first 15 minutes of the pilot episode, I really didn’t think The Following could be great. Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, who was responsible for the capture of dynamic literature-professor-turned-serial-killer Joe Carroll, played by the amazing James Purefoy (Rome, John Carter).
Hardy has a pacemaker because Carroll stabbed him in the chest; he’s battling personal demons, he has a drinking problem—you know the drill. At one point a female detective says to him, “I’ve read your file. I know you don’t play well with others,” and I literally groaned.
But just before that 15-minute mark, when Carroll has escaped from prison and his female prison groupies start showing up at the police station, things change. One of them disrobes, and we see verses from Edgar Allan Poe—Carroll’s inspiration for his murders—written on her skin. And then everything gets very twisted.
At that moment, The Following proves it is definitely not CSI.
I can imagine quite a few fans of shows like CSI and charismatic, likable Hollywood actors like Bacon tuned into the pilot episode expecting dark, but not too dark. They were probably horrified.
The Following is much more akin to horror than FBI drama, which is exactly why I liked it. In fact, it’s better than a lot of horror films out there, in that it’s genuinely creepy and doesn’t feel safe, not just because you’re watching people get stabbed on Fox.
Though The Following’s got levels of violence that some people are already calling pornographic, it’s also got the psychological gravitas to back it up. It may be lacking a little in character development and good dialogue, but it’s interesting enough for me to think it deserves a chance.
As a character, Hardy might be an archetype that borders on cliche, but Bacon is an undeniably fine actor. And even though he has that dastardly British accent, Purefoy has enough sinister charm to make you really believe he could convince people to kill and die for him.
How far-reaching is his Manson-like cult? By the end of the first episode, I was totally on board to find out.
If you saw the pilot and you’re not the type to be turned off by this kind of material, you’ll be happy to know that the next three episodes get progressively stronger. They delve into exactly the right issues, like what kinds of people would follow Carroll and why.
We also learn more about Hardy. The supporting actors are all excellent, including Shawn Ashmore (X-Men’s Iceman), Natalie Zea (Justified) and Nico Tortorella (Scream 4). And things just get darker. The themes of violent revenge and death are primed to take the show to bleaker, more disturbing places. It’s sick and depraved, and it’s in prime time.
I’m not mature enough to not find that exciting.
Obviously, this kind of entertainment is not for everyone. The Following has yet to prove if it can be the next exception to the cable-is-better rule, but it manages to be fresh and unexpected.
That’s certainly a good place to start.