The Following, like everything, exists on two separate levels—the text and the subtext. Basic idea. Complicated execution. Text, you can control, as a creator. (And “text” doesn’t just apply to words; the camerawork and lighting and non-diegetic music are all part of the text.) Subtext is trickier, because subtext is everything you’re saying but not really saying; everything you’re saying through omission; everything that is implied.
There is a universe, maybe even this one, where I can see how the text of The Following is… fine. It’s not good television, but it’s a story that is suspenseful and fast-paced, and the acting, directing, and editing are not terrible. It’s not wholly impossible to imagine why people who find this kind of thing interesting would keep returning to it to watch more of it. It’s a show that rewards repeat viewers with promises of variations on the same few themes. It has a method that works, on some level.
It’s the subtext of the show that makes my skin crawl. It’s everything the show implies, as it goes around slitting throats and shoving blades into people’s defenseless abdomens. Every time I watch this show I am assaulted with and really at war with the insinuations it offers up.
It would be so much easier if this were a show willing to veer into straight camp, or to play horror with a straight face. It would be so much easier if this were a show that didn’t pretend to have an element of bureaucratic and institutional realism to it. This is suspense rather than horror; thrilling rather than gory. This is piano wire around the neck of the woman who made the “mistake” of walking to her car alone at night; this is stabbing the man who “stupidly” checked in on his dog before going to bed.
It is too real. Not about cults or serial killers. It knows nothing about either. No; about despair, about fear. About feeling that if something bad happens to someone, it is their fault. The Following is every idiot who argues that a woman shouldn’t have been wearing “that” before going out; every jackass who complains that victims of anything were “asking for it.” It’s such an easy stance to take, and we’ve all taken it at some point or another, but it misses the point. The bad guy. It is the bad guy’s fault.
In its gleeful pursuit of terror at all costs, The Following somehow mashes together good-guy, bad-guy, and blame into a cocktail of subtext that yields constant despair. Bureaucracies fail. Institutions fail. People die all the time. Women are routinely victimized; slim, pathetic rhetoric induces people to kill. I watched tonight’s episode, but I don’t really have anything to say about it, because nothing really happened. The unrelenting barrage of self-hatred continued.
I guess some people want to watch this? I don’t really know why. The only input I’ve gotten from people who enjoy The Following is that they find it thrilling or “fucked-up” or “exciting.” My guess is also that it probably confirms their worst suspicions about the world, and gives them excuse to keep on keeping on with their worldview. I don’t mean to be judgmental—we all need affirmations. But this is such a sad one to affirm. The Following is a show that encourages us to believe in nothing—or, short that, to believe only what we want to believe, because the rest of the world is too scary to contemplate.
The Following is not a show about death. It is a show about living in fear, and confirming your worst fears, and being smug and defeatist about it while slashing more throats.
Digression: I met a woman today whose sister and niece were murdered. Rather, I discovered this about a woman I have met once before. How do you handle that kind of information in a conversation? You don’t really. But we were talking about television, and she told me that used to watch crime procedurals obsessively, because she was trying to come to terms with murder, or maybe desensitize herself to it. It didn’t really work, and she stopped trying. She said she’s trying to find a sitcom that gets her to laugh more. (Also, she said she watches Parenthood. I pointed her to Friday Night Lights. What else could I do?)
- Sorry, no jokes this week. Feeling a little down.
- How would you guys feel if I just started reviewing The Fosters in this space instead? Would anyone notice?
- So, what’s the more desperate plot device: serial killers, or cults?
- I never quite caught who the teacher’s pet was supposed to be.