“The Following” 10 Years Later – A Violent Series Audiences Weren’t Ready For

Police procedurals are nothing new when it comes to television, going all the way back to the 1960’s and even before.  So with series like Law and Order, CSI, NCIS (and all of their collective spinoffs), and Criminal Minds, audiences were certainly familiar with crime thrillers about serial killers and the teams that try to apprehend them.

However, when The Following premiered in January of 2013, something about it just hit differently.  Created by Kevin Williamson (screenwriter of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and The Faculty, and creator of Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries), the series shocked audiences with how violent it was (especially for network TV rather than premium cable).  And with an A-list movie star like Kevin Bacon starring, it gave the series instant cinematic credentials.

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This was the era was series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad had ushered in “the golden age of television” and more movie stars were willing to do TV shows than before.

So in honor of the 10th anniversary of The Following’s premiere episode, we wanted to take a look back at the series, its highs and lows, and what made it stand out, as well as how things could have gone better for it in hindsight.

Different Kind of Villain
On series like these, serial killers are a dime a dozen and often only get an episode to themselves.  But Joe Carroll was different.  Not only was he a suave, narcissistic psychopath, but he had an ability to inspire impressionable people to do his homicidal bidding.  Mark Purefoy definitely gave off some strong Hannibal Lecter vibes, but what separated him from many of the others was that he saw himself as the villain in this epic tale he was weaving.

He was honestly closer to Elijah (aka “Mr. Glass”) from Unbreakable, in that he saw himself as fulfilling a necessary villain role to counter his nemesis, former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon).  The two of them almost had a mutual respect, and it was always great to see Bacon and Purefoy play off of each other.  And it was fascinating to watch a villain like Joe Carroll intentionally lead Ryan Hardy along this quest, all in the name of telling his story.

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Joe’s constant smug smile was a reminder that this entire ordeal was just for his own entertainment and he was having so much fun with it.

Carroll’s entire cult was based around their obsession with Edgar Allen Poe, and how there is beauty and art in death.  And of course if there was going to be a death cult based around an author, it would be Poe.  What made them so dangerous was how Carroll had spent years getting his people to infiltrate everywhere, including his son’s nanny and even a prison guard.

That first season was so compelling because Hardy and the FBI never knew when another follower would emerge to write their “chapter” via murder.  It allowed for the series to have a “murderer of the week” approach, while still having the mastermind behind the whole thing.

Pushing the Envelope
One of the first things fans and critics noticed was just how violent the series was.  The pilot episode alone features a shot with two dead prison guards covered in blood, as well as a woman stabbing herself in the eye in pretty graphic detail.  There had certainly been violent TV shows on Fox before (look no further than 24), but The Following went out of its way to show stabbing, slicing, and bloody gore.  Whereas many other violent shows had people getting shot, but showed no blood.

It ultimately begged the question, why was this series on Fox at all and not a premium channel like HBO or Showtime.  With streaming being what it is now, this series most likely would have premiered on a streamer with a TV-MA rating, but it somehow got away with TV-14 on Fox.

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Headlines like these were common during its run.

This of course led to other limitations like sex scenes with zero nudity and not a single F bomb being dropped.  Not that every series has to have those things, but it definitely felt weird that the show would go almost R rated with violence, but not with language or sex.

But the fact that it was so violent drew harsh criticism from both critics and parent groups, many of whom complained that even at its timeslot.  The Parents Television Council even wrote to Fox, condemning the series and everything it showed.  So for the series’ own tonal consistency, and for the fact that the gore was so heavily criticized, it definitely would have played out better on any premium channel.

Lingering Too Long?
Like many other serialized drama/thrillers, The Following had an amazing first season and trailed off a bit in the two that followed.  This often happens because the first season was planned out in advance the creator had time to think it all through as the show was being pitched and developed.  And when it gets picked up for a second season, they now have a much shorter amount of time to continue a story that maybe didn’t even need continuing.

The Following was no different, as the second season abandons the entire Edgar Allen Poe epic story theme, and just introduces another run of the mill religious cult that wants Joe Carroll to help lead them.  And then the third season feels like an entirely different show, continuing with the cult from the second season and Joe Carroll struggling to find a place in the narrative.

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When Joe just become another Charles Manson, he lost what made him unique in the first season.

Seasons 2 and 3 aren’t terrible by any means, but they just don’t capture that dark magic that the first season had.  The pilot episode remains one of the best intros to a horror/thriller TV show in history, especially with the use of Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” cover as Joe unveils his plan and we realize how deep his cult goes.

In hindsight, it was an incredibly dark series that was way too violent for the network it was on, but tame in other areas because of that same network.  It had its ups and downs, but it remains a fascinating chapter in the annals of serial killer TV shows.

What did you think of The Following?  Do you think it should have gotten more seasons?  Let us know in the comments!

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