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Recycling Serial Killers
on March 16, 2015
If you want a summary of the premise for 'The Following', try this:
An FBI agent hunting a vicious serial killer seeks the aid of a brilliant university professor for his insight into the murderer's motivations. As it happens, the prof IS the serial killer. When the truth is revealed, a brutal life or death struggle ensues, except... neither man dies. The killer is fast, striking first and striking hard, but the agent hangs on to consciousness long enough to stop him from finishing the job. The psychopathic professor is badly wounded, but is patched up and sent to prison. The hero is more seriously injured, and bears emotional as well as physical scars. Years later, the now-retired agent is called upon to help with another series of killings that his maniacal nemesis is the key to stopping.
That's actually a summary of the premise for 'Red Dragon', but it also sums up the back-story for 'The Following' perfectly well, and comes pretty close to quite a few other serial killer movies and TV shows, of varying quality and limited originality, that have appeared since 'Silence of the Lambs'. The show's writer and creator, Kevin Williamson, knows all about clichés, making a name for himself with 'Scream'; it was a clever satire that played with the comically repetitive tropes of the horror genre, and a fairly suspenseful horror film in its own right. He also created 'Dawson's Creek', and some truly mediocre movies like 'I Know What You Did Last Summer'. There's no real excuse, then, for the criminally derivative aspects of 'The Following', especially coming from a writer as attuned to pop culture precedent as Williamson; actually, there's never any excuse for the recycled garbage that ends up as 'cop show 5267B', but...
'The Following' manages to rise above the mire from which it sprang, to some extent. The idea of a serial killer who becomes the leader of a cult devoted enough to carry out his nefarious, convoluted schemes, isn't THAT hard to accept, after the Manson family, and the Patty Hearst case, and Jonestown, etc. Memories of the Heaven's Gate cult, the corpses neatly arrayed in bunk-beds, with their identical track-suits and running shoes, provide a vivid example of the power a disturbed but magnetic guru can exert over followers; murder seems like it's just a couple stops past drinking the poisoned kool-aid on the weirdo-cult crazy train. The Manson family's brief rampage, however, has remained an isolated event in the annals of American crime. What's more, the power a cult leader exerts over his followers is based almost entirely on a freakishly powerful charisma, and once removed from that strange gravity, critical thought processes begin to function in whatever diminished capacity passes for normal amongst cult members, and loyalty wanes. Nevertheless, if the guru was charismatic enough, he might be able to pair his will with a pseudo-religion or philosophy compelling enough to start his own holy war.
The idea of using Edgar Allan Poe as a sacred text, however, is pretty uninspired. It's not as whacky as using the lyrics to a Beatles song as a divine manuscript, like Manson did, but 'truth is stranger than fiction', and fiction writers -- unfortunately -- have to try harder than Manson did for something believable; oftentimes motives are a mystery in the real world, but never in fiction. Williamson's use of Poe is pretty lazy. Once again, he stole the idea from 'Red Dragon', in which a serial killer has formulated his own hermetic philosophy based on the art and poetry of William Blake. Blake is a far more interesting inspiration than Poe, who is seemingly the writer of choice for every crappy horror movie and TV show. For all aspiring writers: you might think Poe, Dickens, and Twain are fascinating, and you might believe you have a profound connection to their literature, but dig a little deeper. Williamson, I think, just pulled the name closest to hand and easiest.
Everyone else involved tries harder than Williamson did, which isn't that unusual, in network television. James Purefoy is one of my favorite actors. I had a fairly well-defined image of Mark Antony in my mind before watching the HBO series 'Rome', but by the time the series was done, his performance as one of history's most fascinating characters had made Purefoy indistinguishable from the real figure. He was one of the many reasons that series stands out as one of the best ever made -- top 5, unquestionably. In fact, if you haven't seen it yet, forget 'The Following' for now, and watch both seasons of 'Rome'. The same goes for 'The Wire'. If you haven't seen 'The Wire', WTF are you doing here? If, however, you've already gone through the 'best of' list, and have now worked your way down to 'The Following' (waaay down), its got enough story and suspense to hold your interest, and the cast is excellent. The writers have their moments as well, suffering occasional fits of creativity that save the story from drowning in a swamp of deja view.
Compared to the inexcusable crap that passes for crime drama on network TV -- like CSI: Miami, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS and Criminal Minds (profilers are only marginally more useful than psychics to any serious investigation -- 'We need an APB on a middle-aged Caucasian male, who may or may not be a bed-wetter, and who probably molested woodchucks as a boy... judging by the pattern of the stab wounds and the butterfly-like shape of the blood-splatters, it is believed this unsub might be dangerous...'), 'The Following' represents a sharp improvement. Compared to the one series whose creators, producers and writers paid for the privilege of ransacking Dr. Lecter's storage locker, however, 'The Following' is far inferior. 'Hannibal' reinterprets the mythos created by author Thomas Harris in ways that are very clever and unexpected. Ironically, it's also the rare show about serial killers and FBI agents that actively avoids falling into the deep ruts previous incarnations of the Hannibal saga have cut into the trail. If it's a question of finding the best take on ingenious psychopathic killers, it's 'Hannibal'. If you can't get enough of this sort of thing, 'The Following' is a distant-but-decent second-place finisher (or third place, if you put 'Bates Motel' in the same category).
The inexplicable stupidity really does run rampant: Bacon's character is just a 'consulting agent' (Ugh. How many times...), but every episode finds him rushing to the scene ahead of everyone with just one agent for back-up. Every time this happens, instead of waiting for back-up, he decides to 'go in', but not before sending his partner off to 'cover' the back of the warehouse/farm house/crack house, and face off against multiple armed and dangerous suspects alone. No agent would allow another one to enter a situation like that alone -- and especially not when they're the ones giving the orders. Nevertheless, when the agent in charge of the case allows him to run into the abandoned factory without her in episode 08, she proves completely useless -- the three or four surviving 'followers' come rushing out the door she's been left to cover (they're all armed, but flee when Bacon surprises them and kills the extras without speaking parts, despite the fact that he's alone with a close-to-spent clip), pile into the vehicle she should have rendered inoperable by pulling a spark-plug, or cutting the tires, and escape before the backup that should of accompanied them from the start. Bacon gets held at gunpoint by Joe and his followers over and over again, at which point the gunman always looks smug, says he can't die yet, then makes vague, grandiose threats. He usually manages to get the upper hand before long, and chase his captors before they ultimately escape, capture one of them, or kill them. Hollywood gives the average FBI agent way too much credit for intelligence, imagination, and common sense, and 'The Following' is no different. But the stupidity they display in every crucial situation almost seems like Williamson's anti-authoritarian, passive-aggressive way of giving the feds a narrative b***h-slap.
So... the Feds in this series are brain-dead, and they're also way better at killing people than the actual serial killers, and... less bothered by it. The bad guys let them live, then get murdered by Kevin Bacon. Maybe the worst thing, however, the cliché that has it's roots in Greek mythology and drama, is the nemesis. The killer is always the dark reflection of the hero cop. In 'Hannibal', they get back to the myth, in which your nemesis is a doppelganger wearing the antlers of a stag. Will Graham is haunted by stag imagery throughout the series, often in surprising and creepy ways, symbolic of his powerful connection to Hannibal Lecter. So far, Hannibal has avoided uttering some pathetic variation of the line that makes me ill - 'We're not so different, you and I'. It has popped up in hundreds, and possibly thousands, of films and TV episodes since Belloche popularized it in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', freeing it from its pulp fiction and comic-book origins. Purefoy is a great Nemesis, but the idea is just exhausted. Played out. Done. End it.