It’s no secret that cable drama has been kicking the major networks’ ass for the past decade. Though network comedy has largely stayed strong, the broadcast networks have found themselves struggling to develop engaging and thoughtful drama. Meanwhile, cable’s been hard at work dominating the dramatic field with well-respected critical hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. On top of good critical reception, AMC’s The Walking Dead has proven a ratings juggernaut, even surpassing broadcast ratings on some nights.
In response, we’re starting to see networks mimic cable content. Most recently, FOX has pushed their new Kevin Bacon star vehicle The Following as their version of a gritty cable drama. The motivation for this comes from the series’ content (it’s about a serial killer). But the show itself is largely an empty exercise in screen violence. FOX here is mimicking the violence possible to portray on cable, but not the substance. It seems like the network is too focused on what shows on cable can “get away with” that network shows can’t, rather than focusing on why those cable shows use that subject matter. Breaking Bad isn’t there for us to shake our heads at violence and drugs, it’s a character study of a desperate man making poor decisions that quickly deteriorate his moral being. The Following is pretty much a show that exists so we can stare at fake blood and think “oooo, how edgy! Can you believe we’re seeing this on network TV?!?!”
Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a hardened former FBI agent. Bacon is a capable actor, and he more than anyone else in the cast gives these goofy scripts some sense of gravity. But the story itself is too ludicrous to suspend disbelief. The serial killer in question, Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy, struggling to make the lines not sound ridiculous), currently incarcerated, has apparently used the internet in the prison library to amass an army of followers/admirers, creating some sort of chat-room fueled serial killer cult. Hardy then spends the series catching these followers and sparring with Carroll in prison. The show uses goofy Edgar Allen Poe references as plot devices that become grating very quickly. The characters, outside of Hardy, are all ciphers, speaking in mostly exposition with no real personality to latch onto or get invested in.
To a large extent, The Following seems to exist so FOX can say that they are “edgy.” This kind of shallow mimicking of prestige cable shows is a desperate tactic resulting in unremarkable work. If networks want to produce this kind of content, it’s done through good writing, not by finding excuses to splatter fake blood all over the set.