By Paul Cantor
February 20th, 2013
The Fox Network claims to have a new hit TV show on its hands called The Following, starring not some run-of-the-mill actor six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, but Kevin Bacon himself. People in Charlottesville, Virginia, might be curious about this show, because it deals with a university in Virginia and regularly refers to Edgar Allan Poe. I was particularly intrigued when I heard that The Following features an English professor (my own calling in life).
Imagine my disappointment when I learned that The Following is partially set, not at UVA, but at the fictional Winslow University, and the English professor is a serial killer. Bacon plays a cop who earlier put the professor in prison and now has come out of retirement to thwart the professor’s new nefarious plans, which center around a cult following he carefully cultivated from behind bars.
Clearly my hopes that my life was finally being dramatized on network television had been dashed. As for Poe, his main function is to inspire the fiendish methods the serial killer uses to torment his victims. As an aficionado of horror films, I immediately recognized that this motif had already been worked out in one of Universal Studio’s classic pairings of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, in a favorite film of mine from late-night television, The Raven.
This is not the only way in which The Following is derivative. It draws upon the movie Seven, with liberal helpings from the Hannibal Lecter series. The actor who plays the serial killer, James Purefoy, is trying to channel Anthony Hopkins, with limited success. All things considered, I doubt that I would have watched more than one episode of The Following if not for the fact that Monday is such a weak night for broadcast television. One alternative in its time slot is something called Bunheads. I’m not sure I want to find out what that show is about. I’m hoping that it’s not the story of my life either.
Somehow The Following aroused my morbid curiosity because I’ve watched every episode thus far. It’s one of those poorly written shows in which the desired outcomes dictate the twists and turns of the plot. At one point a mentally challenged member of the serial killer’s cult following manages to outwit 47 trained policemen to sneak into a closely guarded house—because the plot requires a killer to threaten a heroine. But a few minutes later, the mentally challenged character reverts to type and stupidly allows Kevin Bacon to shoot him with the lamest of ruses—because it was time to cut to commercial.
What really disturbs me about The Following, however, is the way it perpetuates a pervasive myth in American popular culture: that if you have the slightest interest in literature, there must be something wrong with you, and if you should happen to teach literature, you’re undoubtedly a menace to society.
In the most absurd scenes of the series (mercifully few, probably because of the low tolerance of preview audiences for Poe’s poetry), the professor turns his classroom into a hothouse of psychosexual exploration. The female students in particular are enraptured by their initiation into the existential implications of large black birds repeatedly saying “Nevermore.” I may be nitpicking, but this portrait of college classroom experience strikes me as a tad unrealistic. I’ve taught a lot of English classes in my 42-year career, and my students are mostly interested not in the intricacies of serial killing, but in what’s going to be on the final. But I have to admit that, given the fact that the professor does successfully create a cult following, he must be doing something right according to current theories of outcome-based education. I’d love to see the “Course Goals” item on his syllabus.
Do serial killers really derive their inspiration from American romantic literature? I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I do watch the Investigation Discovery Channel a couple of hours a day, and in the course of shows like Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry? and Happily Never After, I’ve followed the careers of more than my share of serial killers. Time and again, family, friends, and the guy next door comment on the sheer ordinariness of serial killers. “I never would have guessed that he killed and ate 27 people” is the basic tenor of their remarks. Not once in these dramatizations of real-life stories has anyone ever responded: “I knew something was wrong when he started reciting ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ from memory,” or “I should have gotten suspicious when I saw him moving a pit and a pendulum into his basement.”
In fact, the single most frequent comment on serial killers in all these shows is: “I looked into his eyes and I couldn’t see anything,” not “I looked into his eyes and I saw Anthony Hopkins.” Far from brimming over with culture and witty repartee, the real-life serial killers seem to be lacking something, perhaps lacking humanity itself. It’s not just because I’m an English professor myself that I object to the suggestion that absorption in literature is a sign of mental pathology, although I can understand why Hollywood writers who suffered through their English majors in college might think so.
As for the villain’s cult following that gives the show its name, here the series displays a remarkable degree of insensitivity in our age of political correctness. As we have seen, one of the followers is mentally challenged, and clearly identified as such. The two other male followers first appear as a gay couple—then we learn that they’re only masquerading as a gay couple to keep track of one of the professor’s female targets—then we learn that they may be gay after all, or at least one of them is romantically attached to the other (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The chief female member of the cult is a mousy, sexually repressed loser, who, among other nasty deeds, kills her own mother. The other females among the professor’s following are similarly unbalanced and take special pleasure in tormenting men with knives. In general, the women in the series can be divided into two categories: (1) stereotypically passive and helpless victims (2) stereotypically vengeful and psychotic victimizers. There is one female FBI agent who may turn out to be a forceful and mentally balanced character, but for the moment she seems to be there mainly to get in Kevin Bacon’s way. As TV FBI agents go, she’s no Dana Scully or Olivia Dunham.
Adding up the cult members, we have the mentally challenged, gay men, and sexually frustrated women. If one were seeking to perpetuate the most backward stereotypes of cultured people in our society, one could hardly do a better job. Has anyone but me been following what’s actually going on in The Following? I think it may be time to switch channels to Bunheads.
About the author: Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV.
Television Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood