I did not particularly like Fox’s The Following, Fox’s new drama, which stars Kevin Bacon as an alcoholic former FBI agent who comes out of retirement to hunt down James Purefoy, the pretentious, Edgar Allen Poe-quoting serial killer, who has escaped from prison and trained a whole bunch of other serial killers to fulfill their own dark fantasies and enhance his own legend. The whole thing struck me as a slick but empty excuse to put extraordinarily grotesque violence on television in an attempt to compete with cable, as if violence itself, rather than the things that lead up to violence, were what make cable dramas sophisticated. Over at Vulture, however, Matt Zoller Seitz has a theory about what the show’s really about:
Once you become attuned to the show’s anti-logic, the mix of gnawing dread and random mayhem might trigger the gloomy adrenaline rush of the 2001–2004 period. Hijackings, collapsing skyscrapers, subway explosions, shoe bombers, anthrax attacks, terror alerts, weapons of mass destruction: The Following evokes an alternate-world version of that horrendous time. Watch the skies. Sleep with the lights on. Trust no one. Those co-workers or next-door neighbors or smiling security guards that you deal with each day could be in cahoots with an ice-veined genius-madman. Portions of the first few episodes reminded me less of The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en than a zombie or body-snatchers picture, one in which every character but the lead could secretly be, or potentially become, a monster. Parts of The Following feel like 24 with serial killers instead of terrorists. It’s an apocalypse story as long-form nightmare. The whole world is losing its mind.
It’s an idea that that actually makes me like The Following even less.
We’ve done an enormous number of terrible and inconvenient things to ourselves in the decade since the September 11 attacks, from destroying our moral credibility by torturing suspected terrorists to making it a trial to get through airports, all on the grounds that there are extraordinarily wide-spread and competent terrorist operations out there planning to get us. And that turns out not to be true. The people who want to attack us have tried, unsuccessfully, to smuggle bombs on planes in their underwear and shoes. They’ve failed to detonate explosives in Times Square—that plot was foiled by the attentiveness of a Senegalese immigrant, in a nice reminder of how broad our team is, and how narrow the reach of our enemies, despite the damage we’ve done to ourselves and our international reputation. In a Newburgh, New York case, a terror attack appears to have been dreamed up by a federal informant, who convinced co-conspirators to join him. If there’s anything we should have learned in the last decade, it’s that our enemies are frustrating precisely because of how few of them there are, how easily they can hide out among millions of other people, and how much they’ve been able to convince us to change our own society with relatively few resources at their disposal.
The Following, Williamson suggested at the Television Critics Association press tour, makes the opposite point. “The FBI is constantly sort of chasing their tail a little bit because they don’t realize how insidious and how large and how wide the story is,” he says of his serial killer’s plot. “And so that’s kind of the fun of the show is as they start to learn it.” But there’s something grotesque about the idea that—even though serial killers do, of course, exist—there are so many people out there who are just waiting for someone to teach them how to kill and to unleash them into the world with terrible purpose. In real life, we’ve learned that the number of people who are excited to become mass killers in the name of blinkered ideology is mercifully small. It’s scary that they’re out there in any number, but it’s also frightening what we’ve done to ourselves to thwart them. We need to wake up to that fact, rather than, as Williamson suggests, to double down in hunting through the shadows.