Even when scripted television is at its peak, it is still escapism. Any scripted show is designed primarily to bring entertainment value to the consumer, not provide a documentary look at whatever subject matter the show is covering. In every television show, some suspension of disbelief is required in order to enjoy the television show. Recent television history has caused a bit of a shift in that dynamic. Gone are the days massive plot twists and angles would occur without real consideration on the part of the viewer. We’re too smart, too informed, and too nitpicky to just let things go.
In 2013, what’s an implausible show to do? The devil, as always, is in the details. Plenty of outlandish things happen on our favorite television shows, but with intricate plot development and attention to detail, a show can make something ridiculous seem passable. My favorite recent example is the train robbery episode from Breaking Bad. Yes, Walter White robbed a train. However, the show beautifully walked us through every step in glorious detail to make a train robbery at least make you go “Well, maybe…” Without the details of the heist laid out, the episode falls flat on its face. With the details, the show becomes one of the more exhilarating hours of television of recent memory.
This point (among many) is where The Following falls flat on its face. The show wants to be taken seriously, yet it routinely fans on small, but unmistakable details. I knew we were in for quite a doozy when Claire Matthews woke up at Phi Stabba Stabba with her hair and makeup perfectly in place. That being said, you can’t blame a girl for trying to walk out of her ex-husband’s murderer compound in broad daylight out the front door. This show continues to do Natalie Zea a disservice. Her character has moments of real inner strength (like in her scene with Emma), but the show has also made her seem completely stupid at numerous turns for reasons that remain unclear. By having her willfully arrange for a long-term stay at Phi Stabba Stabba, the show announced they have no idea what to do with her character. Now she’s left to run lines with people who are acting insane before they calmly go about the rest of their business. Sigh.
In the early stages of the series, the Carroll killer triumvirate that held Joey was rather problematic. Emma had the most staying power, Paul was the best actor, but Jacob’s character had the biggest room for growth. The show could have taken his character in about 100 different ways. Instead, the show does exactly what it always does when it comes to character development: opt for the path of least resistance. I don’t mind Jacob turning in to a person with the capacity to kill, but to transform him from doey-eyed killer-in-training to horror movie villain doesn’t seem in the show’s best interest. A character that once had the capacity to operate in different arenas of the show is now stuck delivering horrendous dialogue to a captured FBI agent. I won’t rule out that the show saw early returns and decided the actor couldn’t handle it, but surely they could have found a better use for the character. Then again, that kind of thinking goes against the very nature of the paint by numbers approach to storytelling we have going here.
Television viewers have certainly gotten more demanding as the years have passed. However, our demands aren’t unreasonable. Sadly, it seems unreasonable for us to expect anything better from The Following.