In its third-season premiere, Comedy Central’s Kroll Show added a new subgenre to its range of televised targets: The serial-killer drama. On Dead Girl Town, Nick Kroll plays overly cool Detective Logan, whose world is one in which nameless, beautiful girls turn up dead on the daily. In typical Kroll Show fashion, Dead Girl Town pushes its satire to extremes. But in its exaggerations, the sketch probes the key problems with some of TV’s most murder-filled series: a reliance on violence for shock value, to a point that fetishizes misogyny and brutality toward women.
“You think she’s a stripper?” Logan’s fellow detective asks when they find a dolled-up corpse in a pile of trash.
Logan scoffs. “She’s a dead girl, isn’t she?”
The Following, which returns to Fox tonight, epitomizes everything that’s wrong with serial-killer TV and sometimes seems just as blithely disconnected from its violence as Dead Girl Town. Only in this case, it isn’t satire. And while it has made a few attempts to shift its ideology as it enters its third season, The Following still can’t figure out what it’s trying to say about violence.
Despite the overly complex structure of the murder cult at the center of The Following’s universe, the show boils down quite simply to a cat-and-mouse chase between FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the cult’s leader, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). Carroll has convinced his devout followers that there is enlightened purpose in killing, and even though he is locked away for most of the series, they carry out his violence for him. For most of the first two seasons, it seems like The Following writers’ room was engaged in a game of “How can we kill people this time?”, always trying to outdo themselves with more and more gore. The Following sets characters on fire, slices them up, disfigures them, and shoots them with such disinterest that they really do just seem like bodies and not people. Corpses are lucky if they get a name. Even Hardy can’t remember the names of everyone he’s killed, and he’s not the serial killer!
The Following is a show that struggles with its female characters: It never really figured out what to do with Natalie Zea’s Claire Matthews; a new love interest for Hardy, played by Zuleikha Robinson, operates as little more than a humanizing security blanket for Bacon’s character. And while The Following’s staggering body count includes men and women, it’d be facile to claim that this equal-opportunity slaying means the violence on the show isn’t steeped in patriarchal power structures. Bloodshed is undeniably sexualized on The Following: Multiple characters have used murder and violence as foreplay. This is certainly true of two of season three’s new characters, Daisy (Ruth Kearney) and Kyle (Hunter Parrish), who get pleasure out of killing together.
“Suffocation is such a turn on,” Daisy says in the new season’s second episode. It’s a ridiculous line, but it isn’t played for laughs. That’s a recurring problem on The Following: The “bad guys” are all so over-the-top and cartoonish, but the scripts don’t allow any room for humor. There’s no camp to any of it. It’s hard to find things to laugh about when people are being cut up and put in boxes.
Joe Carroll’s killings are also gendered and sexual. As it is with Paul Spector on BBC Two’s vastly superior serial-killer show, The Fall, the female body is Carroll’s primary target. But whereas The Fall directly cross-examines the links between hegemonic masculinity and violence against women, The Following just sort of shrugs it off. Ryan Hardy, in fact, explicitly denies that there’s anything sexual about the violence behind Carroll’s killings in the pilot. When Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) tries to explain that Carroll began slicing people up for arousal, Hardy cuts him off. According to Hardy, Carroll’s obsession with the romantic period and Edgar Allan Poe in particular motivated his killings. “He didn’t just eviscerate 14 female students; he was making art,” Hardy explains. “To classify him as a piquerist would be simplistic.”
Would it really be simplistic though? Would it not examine the connections between male violence, sexual violence, and patriarchal desires for control and power? Don’t all of these ideas have a lot more to say about real acts of violence in society than, say, the very absurd premise—that Carroll’s entire murder is based on a flawed interpretation of the works of Poe—the show expects us to take seriously? The Following dismisses violence with as much nonchalance as Dead Girl Town, chalking up the actions of Carroll and his followers as, simply, the actions of fucked-up people.
Season three, at least, tries to move away from the murder cult. Carroll, in fact, isn’t even seen in the first couple of episodes, which take place a month out from his scheduled execution. The murders now are about something a little easier to digest: revenge. But even with a less abstract motive for its killers, the show is still just as incoherent about violence as it was where we left it last spring.
In season three’s second episode, “Boxed In,” a man unflinchingly and monotonously explains exactly how he’s going to paralyze his victim, dislocate most of his bones, and chop him up into pieces, and it’s hard not to see this drawling murderer as a stand-in for the show’s own voice on violence for violence’s sake. The Following might just be too dead behind the eyes to ever really come to life.