At this month’s Television Critics Association press tour, Kevin Reilly talked a lot about trying to apply the best parts of the cable model to network television. Telling one concrete, well-plotted story over 10-13 episodes while attracting big name stars to carry “high-concept” shows. The prototype for this new model appears to be The Following. Comments from various people involved with the show, including Reilly, are immensely excited about its prospects. With Kevin Bacon at the center of a show that allows James Purefoy to do James Purefoy things, and the risque content of the show, the expectations for the show both within the network and in the zeitgeist are sky high.
One problem: Despite having a lot of the trappings of a cable drama, The Following has forgotten the key component of any good cable series. The prestige cable dramas is not a product of its content. Rather, it’s the thematic continuity, depth, and character richness that set the prestige cable dramas apart from their network cousins. Breaking Bad may have blown off Gus Fring’s face (spoiler!), but that moment of startling violence was the culmination of TWO seasons of expert plotting and character development. The Following just wants us to wallow in the mind of a psychopath. It’s not a proposition without entertainment value, but it’s not the high-minded answer to cable that Kevin Reilly and the people at Fox want you to believe it is.
The show is anchored by a highly-invested Kevin Bacon. As former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, Bacon is brought back in to consult when serial killer Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy) breaks out of prison. All of the standard ex-crime stopper trappings are there: He’s a drunk, he’s physically and emotionally damaged by his last case, and he “doesn’t play well with others”. If the character isn’t played by someone with Bacon’s ability, it would be a straight-out-of-central-casting flawed hero. Ryan Hardy’s return to the FBI is one giant contrivance that Jack Bauer would be proud of. In the pilot alone, there are two different people who will only talk to Ryan Hardy, and a third who prefers his voice above all others. The contrivance for a show or movie like this one comes pretty standard, but it seems like the writers just wanted to zoom right through it so Hardy could start sparring with Carroll.
Interestingly enough, James Purefoy is a great choice to play Joe Carroll. James Purefoy plays big. If you’re looking for subtlety in your role, then you best seek it elsewhere. However, if you turn Purefoy loose on the screen, he can be a wildly entertaining part of a show. Therefore, it’s not impossible to envision many entertaining scenes between Purefoy and Bacon as the series progresses. However, given that Carroll ends up back in the can at the end of the premiere episode, how many scenes from Kevin Reilly’s Silence of the Lambs spec script can Bacon and Purefoy do together before the act starts to get stale?
It remains to be seen what becomes of The Following. Anyone thinking that this show will launch a network drama renaissance is going to be sorely disappointed. However, the pilot is not without its entertainment value. By ending with Joe Carroll in prison, the show leaves itself several openings to pursue. It might not be the next Breaking Bad, but The Following has the pedigree and the intrigue to carve out a rather successful run on television. Given the difficult nature of today’s television landscape, Kevin Reilly should be satisfied with that.