Written by Julie Balloo

Arts

Binging: The Following

So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week Julie Balloo explains why she’s following The Following.

James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon in The Following

James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon: would you trust them? Photo: Warner Bros Television.

Right before the opening credits roll and as soon as the resolutely insistent announcer warns us that “this show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing,” my heart quickens, pounding in my chest and I clasp my wine glass and give way to the inevitable terror I’m about to experience.

The main protagonists of this dynamic series are two hunky fiftysomethings, making for appealing eye candy viewing for the middle-aged ladies among us. The classically handsome British actor (and arguably the best James Bond we never had) James Purefoy portrays Joe Carroll, a debonair serial killer moonlighting as an English Lit professor with an obsession for Edgar Allan Poe. What more could a box set lover want? Oh yes, then put into the mix the craggy-faced former ‘80s brat packer and celebrity linking party-game-name Kevin Bacon, as the heroic and indomitable FBI agent Ryan Hardy, and you have one hell of a sexy and petrifying series.

The Following is all about paranoia, the sort of unresolved all-encompassing paranoia that wakes you in the middle of the night and stalks your imagination all day; popping back into your mind once more just as you lay your head on the pillow the next evening, maniacally whispering so only you can hear, “I’m back!”

The series, the brainchild of Kevin Williamson, creator of Dawson’s Creek, is now in its third season. The first episode opens with the escape of the deadly Carroll from a seemingly impenetrable prison with the help of his fellow cult members who have all vowed to follow him come what may.

“Suddenly, you’re too scared silly to leave the room and pop to the loo in case your fellow sofa viewer (even if he is your husband) is one of them…one of them.”

This is what makes this series so terrifyingly good; the viewer never really knows who the baddies are. They could be anyone and anywhere. As soon as you have warmed to a character and felt a sense of relief when they enter the danger zone, your comfort blanket is snatched away and the reveal is unexpected and morally disconcerting as you realise your judgement stinks.

“No, not them too,” you scream at the screen. Suddenly, you’re too scared silly to leave the room and pop to the loo in case your fellow sofa viewer (even if he is your husband) is one of them…one of them.

We follow Joe and his cult as they hatch heinous plots to take over the world and turn everyone they come in contact with into either a follower or a murder victim. They appear out of nowhere, seated beside you on the subway, serving you burgers and fries, winking as they demand you have a nice day; they are your best friend, your spouse, your vicar, your neighbours and they all have the same thing in common , blind adoration for their leader Joe Carroll and an ever-growing passion for murder.

Don’t get me wrong: there are jokes a-plenty and some very dark humour. Joe, after all, is a paragon of wit and charm, the perfect boyfriend if only he wasn’t a serial killer. Damn!

The Following cast shotBut Joe has his weaknesses, his ex-wife and young son and his inexplicable obsession with Ryan Hardy – oh, and his book. Did I mention he is writing a horror novel inspired by Poe which dictates every move the cult make? Some might say his failure to achieve literary greatness is the fervour that fuels his quest for human destruction; all this violent mayhem because he can’t get published. Well, it certainly makes for brilliant PR and would guarantee a sales boost even if he had to have an armed guard and be handcuffed throughout any future book signings.

Sometimes, the whole premise becomes so cartoon-like and video game inspired you suspend all belief and sit open-mouthed at what you are witnessing, exclaiming, “Are you kidding me?” over and over again. They are the friendly police, or are they? They are the caring nurse, or are they? They are the loving partner, or are they?

There is sex and blood and death and extraordinary bravery and loyalty and real tenderness. The good guys against the bad guys and the disturbing truth that no matter how brutal and dispassionate Joe is, the casting means he remains incredibly fanciable which leads to all sorts of moral dilemmas. Gorgeous handsome chaps can be psychopaths; who knew?

The violence is graphic and the blood spillage must bankrupt the makeup department but hell, I enjoy it. Though from experience it’s best to watch it through your fingers and with a bevy at the ready, constantly reminding yourself Joe Carroll isn’t real, it’s only acting and in actuality James Purefoy probably wouldn’t hurt a fly…or would he?

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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.