“The Following” Redux–Not Going There Again

In February I reviewed and recommended “The Following”, a Fox television drama series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy.  There have been a total of nine episodes so far, but this past week’s episode has made me recant my earlier review.  How disappointed I am in this series!

The story is focused on two main characters:  an FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and a brutal serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) who has a cult following of wannabe killers, mostly young outliers trying to find a place to belong.  But the last episode has overstepped the boundaries for even the psychologically wounded law-enforcement officer and the psychopath: excessive: gratuitously violent scenes that take attention away from the story.

In February I acknowledged that this is one of the most violent shows currently on broadcast TV (and the series has received negative press because of the extreme scenes), I also found the story compelling enough as well as fearlessly acted by Bacon and Purefoy to justify the violence as necessary for understanding the ferocious nature of a psychopath.  However, with the last episode I fear that the long, bloody narrative has taken a backseat to violence for its own sake–a titillating, visceral thrill at seeing pain and torture.   The difference, I think, between violence which supports the story’s plot and “pornographic” violence” is the degree to which the violent acts give a better understanding of the characters and the consequences of their actions.  However, the story has become formulaic and has not moved forward in development of character or plot.  At its extreme, which this last episode demonstrated, “The Following” has bordered on computer-game violence–visual images for their own horrific impact,  appealing to an addictive fascination for some (especially young) viewers..  In this last episode the serial killer appears to have an orgasm after the kill.  Enough is enough!  Take this off the air.  Too bad– not even Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy can resurrect this sickening and exploitative violence, a malignant chemistry that does not belong on either mainstream television or in cinema.

 

Following “The Following”

A Fox television drama series starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (the British actor who brilliantly played Marc Antony in the “Rome” series), “The Following” premiered two weeks ago (January 21).  It is already gaining a fervent, mostly young audience.

A furloughed FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), responsible for the imprisonment of the brutal serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), is brought back into action when Carroll masterminds a series of copycat murders perpetrated by a cult following (think Charles Manson meets Silence of the Lambs).  But Carroll is no ordinary psychopath.  He is a brilliant college professor who knows the power of his charisma and attracts a bevy of young college women to his seductive interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe.  The cult he creates becomes devotees of a perverted, distorted  religion, a version of Gothic romanticism Carroll has authored to encourage the belief that the only way to truly live is to kill.  With obvious references to the “Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “Telltale Heart”, and “Nevermore”, the viewer may have a renewed interest in Poe as reflected in the depraved mind of Ryan.

What follows is a battle between the psychologically wounded (Bacon) and the malevolent psychopath (Purefoy)  who inflicts unimaginable horrors on his victims. Ryan is damaged by the affair he had with Claire Matthews, Carroll’s ex-wife (Natalie Zea–the weak link in the superb cast).  Because he had a romantic connection with the criminal’s ex-wife, Ryan is dismissed from the FBI.  Now the pursuit of not only Carroll but also of his lapsed romance with Claire forces Ryan to deal with his unhealed wounds.

One of the most violent shows currently on broadcast TV, “The Following” is definitely not for the squeamish.  (The series “Dexter” looks edited and censored by comparison).  The horror/suspense nature of the series is underscored by the fact that all the victims in the first episode are young women.  The cult of killers or wannabe killers is made plausible by the quality of the writing and the acting, so that the violence is definitely gory and frightening (I closed my eyes in some scenes), but the psychology of manipulation, betrayal, and exploitation prevents the story from becoming ridiculous.  More back story of the principals (Ryan, Carroll, and even Claire) is required for this program to continue to maintain its fans, however.

“The Following” is a ferocious alloy of  psychology and violence, redemption and deceit.  I can’t wait to see where it’s going next.

“The Mayor of Casterbridge”–A Victorian Drama for Today

Victorian values seem remote — the language is obtuse, the character development Shakespearean in complexity.  However, I adore Thomas Hardy.  As the master of labyrinthine plots, Hardy surprises when the viewer least expects it.  And the BBC/A & E mini-series, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (2003),  capitalizes on every deviant turn with brilliant acting, cinematography, and contemporary sensibility.

Hardy’s novel is immensely captivating in cinematic form.  “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is an astringent tale. The dark and mordant Michael Henchard, mayor of Casterbridge, (masterfully played by the underrated Ciaran Hinds) is deeply unlikable, a cruel, selfish drunkard who brutally humiliates his young wife and small child. But Thomas Hardy does not paint his characters in broad strokes of black and white.  His good and evil are much more complicated than that.  Personal failings morph into redemption and insight but devolve again into self-destruction and betrayal.  The pure-of-heart–Henchard’s wife Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May)–can forgive the unforgiveable and love unconditionally. Lucette, Henchard’s mistress (the excellent Polly Walker) has a more guarded affection. Donald Farfrae (the superb James Purefoy), a young ambitious Scotsman, arrives in Casterbridge and soon is taken into Henchard’s confidence.   Wanting to achieve what Henchard has, through cooperation not competition, Farfrae introduces a revolutionary technological invention for mechanizing wheat cultivation, further enhancing Henchard’s reputation as a shrewd and successful businessman. Soon Farfrae is a more compassionate and effective manager than his employer.   When Farfrae wishes to court Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard’s stepdaughter, the relationship with Henchard begins to unravel, and Farfrae’s own ambitions cast a shadow over his relationship with Elizabeth Jane and Lucette.

The viewer does not expect the ending that unfolds, hoping instead for redemption, forgiveness, self-knowledge. Hardy’s study of human nature and all its failings is soul-piercing and unflinching. In spite of being loved, can the tormented soul be rescued from drowning in self-loathing? The mood of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is wounded, ambiguous, and unforgettable.