A Frighteningly Herculean Suspension of Disbelief
When The Following first began airing two years ago, the word around the Teacher’s Lounge lunch table was pretty positive. To be honest, it sounded like an intriguing concept: An imprisoned serial killer builds a cult-like following from behind bars, then escapes custody and makes it his mission to harass and terrorize the former FBI agent who put him there in the first place. Sounds like a good, dark edge-of-your-seat movie. Holds a lot of promise for thrilling television.
Now that two whole seasons of the show are in the can, I’ve finally started streaming the show in large chunks via Netflix. Unfortunately, I’ve found the amount of leaps of faith I’m being asked to make much too overwhelming to fully enjoy the show. And this coming from a guy that loves nothing better than to suspend my disbelief to get a good chill during horror films, for example. I’m generally more frightened of what I can’t see; I fully expect to be sucked under the ocean’s surface by some giant betentacled monstrosity when I one day foolishly jump in; rumor has it I may even check over my shoulder occasionally when entering the back yard at night to take out the trash (though I can’t confirm or deny that). Let’s just say my imagination isn’t generally lacking, and I’m willing to make quite a few mental jumps for the sake of a good story well told.
And I do like crime procedurals. It’s enjoyable to guess along whodunnit and how he dunnit, or sweat along with the detectives as new leads and evidence turn up, constantly sending the chase in different directions. But it’s quite another beast altogether when the authorities are portrayed with such a woeful level of incompetence that the killers aren’t even having to try hard to run circles around them! Episodes routinely feature agents going into dangerous situations without either (a) waiting for proper backup to arrive or (b) even alerting said backup of their location. Suspects are left unattended, witnesses severely under-guarded, escape routes uncovered, and at least once per episode local authorities seem to take hours to respond to high urgency calls for help. Also, it would appear the FBI agents in this bizarre universe have been strictly prohibited from ever firing even a life-saving shot when their key witness finds him or herself in mortal peril by an armed assailant. Nope, sorry ’bout your luck, but we’d rather provide ample opportunity for the bad guys to dispatch any and all threats against them, then make a leisurely and comfortable getaway.
I’d like to think, were I in the FBI, I’d be much more equipped for the job than most of the stooges on this show; perhaps the case’d even already be solved.
Now, one might raise the point that, were the FBI portrayed competently, the evildoers would come to justice quickly and the show would be over. And yet many other shows have figured out the knack for prolonging the suspense without sacrificing the intelligence of your protagonists.
Alas, the bungling Keystone Cops aren’t the only thing that irks me about The Following, though the second item is more of a begrudging tip of my hat to show creator and writer Kevin Williamson, who should teach a class to budding television writers on how to set up a plot premise in such a way that you’ll never be able to write yourself into a corner. Let’s just call it “Pulling a Rabbit out of Your Hat 101”. By establishing a cult following of uncertain scope early on during the first few episodes, there’s literally no constraints to what obstacles the FBI could find in their path in future seasons.
- The FBI has hired technology specialists capable of tracing our whereabouts? We just so happen to have a world-class hacker in our ranks to save our asses in the nick of time!
- Got chased to the roof of a skyscraper with no place left to run? As luck would have it, an ace helicopter pilot just joined the cult last week, and brought his chopper along!
- In a bind to find a location to covertly hide away yourself plus a whole legion of your disciples? You can bet your bottom dollar that the sheriff of this little town (plus the fire chief, about two dozen police officers, the grocer, the baker, and the entire staff of the local gun store) are conveniently part of your naughty little organization.
It’s virtually impossible for the villains to come up against an insurmountable roadblock that would cripple them in any noticeable way. And the best part? (Here’s the kicker!) It was all put together, planned, and assembled over a course of years by a convicted serial killer from jail, where he apparently enjoyed unfettered access to the best libraries, private internet access, and an unchecked stream of visitors without anyone becoming even the least bit suspicious and making even one innocent inquiry, EVER!
I’m the kind of person that likes to finish what I’ve started, and I’m about two-thirds through the first season at this point. So I’ll likely sit down and force myself to watch the rest of it. But damn it if this show doesn’t serve me up some of the hardest-to-swallow servings of STFU moments…and still I feel somehow compelled to smile and beg for more.