Kevin Bacon in The Following. (Copyright Fox.)
The February cultural slump has set in, a lull between the new show premieres and the Oscars and book awards at the end of the month. To pass the time I’ve been catching up Fox’s new ultraviolent attempt at a hit, The Following. It stars Kevin Bacon as an FBI investigator hunting a serial killer played by James Purefoy. Purefoy’s killer is a former Poe scholar, if one given to rather simple readings of Poe’s work. (There’s a lot of blather framed in blood metaphors, i.e., “it will bleed into your work.”) And through some kind of virtuoso hackery he has become a kind of cult leader on the Internet, with minions now carrying out his violent plan with self-conscious artfulness.
Perhaps for some that does not announce itself as an irresistible premise. I myself began watching out of what is either pity or schadenfreude for Kevin Bacon, I haven’t decided. (He’s a cautionary tale for would-be weekend venture capitalists. Invest it all in Madoff, and in your 50s you’ll find yourself doing crappy network procedurals to keep the lights on!) But it’s also because I have, and share with what I suspect is a large proportion of Americans, an embarrassing fascination with serial killer stories.
But only three episodes in with The Following, already it’s work to keep going. The scripting is inept, the acting barely competent. The cult-by-social-media concept, which in more intelligent hands could have been a nice metaphor for the way that violence creeps into the smaller corners of American life, is too literal to be interesting.
Yet this kind-of-crappy show does, unintentionally, raise the interesting questions about what kinds of violence American culture is willing to confront, and which it isn’t. As the critic Maggie Nelson recently remarked in her The Art of Cruelty, it feels “Tipper-Gore-esque” to even complain about the seriousness of violence in popular culture these days. Wall-to-wall coverage of ultimately-fictional satanic panics and trenchcoat mafias has made us cynics. It’s just that instead of being a matter of television glorifying violence in any real way, it feels like we’re being spoonfed ersatz catharsis these days. You might feel that you’re confronting the horror, but instead you’re just glossing over the real problems at the heart of it.
For example, The Following derives most of its claim to creepiness from buckets of blood and guts. Critics, on reviewing the first few episodes, dutifully remarked on the gratuitousness of it all. Willa Paskin, at Salon, described her experience of watching the first four episodes as “nauseous.” Fair enough; viscera can be gross. But curious thing sometimes happens when we take gore as a stand-in for atmosphere, like Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times seemed to. She argued that because the show was “bleak and relentlessly scary,” it was taking its violence seriously. But is the chief problem with violence that it is gross, or “scary?” Is the “scariness” of violence the way to get people to turn in their guns? Or does it make them cling to them?