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Lockdown, Lowdown… Ringside Report Looks Back at the TV Show The Following

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

Much though I may watch a lot of television, I am not guilty of obsessing over much of it. I love shows and watch them faithfully, but I rarely find myself rushing home to watch them or trying to rescue time at any point in the day to catch up…

And then came the battle between James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon.

Wrapped up as cult versus the authorities, it was pure sultry beauty.

The Following, a psychological crime drama over 3 seasons had an enigmatic leader of a cult up against a flawed and ill FBI Agent who was as equally brilliant and intelligent as his sociopath nemesis. This was a rollercoaster of a drama, originated by Kevin Williamson, produced by Warner Brothers and aired on Fox that captured you from the first and burned bright and slowly till the end came. I caught it on Sky before you could binge watch. I had to wait for the new episodes to “drop”

The show began with serial killer Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy, on the loose, having escaped from prison, and FBI agent Ryan Hardy, played by Kevin Bacon, begged back to help find him. Hardy suffers from a heart condition which is very dangerous and susceptible to the types of stress that trying to find a mass murderer does not help with. Carroll is enjoying newfound cult status, thanks to his teachings in prison, with a group of killers ready and willing to aid his continued escape. They kidnap his son, from his ex-wife, and along with Carroll are focused on the utter humiliation of Hardy. Carroll’s ultimate aim is his reunification with his ex-wife Claire Matthews, played by Natalie Zea. For the first 15 episodes we follow a weekly and increasingly bizarre windy, twisty trail and by the end of the first season, Carroll appears to be caught.

The cuffs are not placed on him because the cabin in which he is cornered, blows up, denying the FBI the taking of him in.

He has died.

Cue season 2.

Oh no he hasn’t…

Having used his son from his ex-wife in season one as part of his own sick plot, Carroll now has Hardy’s niece, Max Hardy played by Jessica Stroup, in his cross hairs. An FBI agent herself, she joins the hunt for Carroll after Hardy realizes that Carroll is still on the loose. But Carroll also has a new cult with which to contend. Led by Lily Gray, played by Connie Nielsen, it provides him with cover to plot his comeback, once they establish contact and draw him from the shadows. She has family in the game too as her twin sons, Mark and Luke – both played by Sam Underwood – follow mummy’s lead. Ultimately the authorities prevail, and we have Carroll arrested and in custody awaiting execution.

Cue season 3.

Oh yes, he is!

After season 3, Fox cancelled the show. It is perhaps down to the fact that rather than be another romp round the US, trying to work out if the Sheriff or the lawyer, the pump attendant or the schoolteacher are followers of Carroll, we have a new serial killer. We get to follow not one but two Hardys from a new and happier place. Though Carroll is a major part of the storyline, he is not in the center of it. It left me, and many others no doubt, missing the tension.

If this was an attempt to see if the character of Hardy had legs beyond the Carroll storyline, it found itself out and proved that no, it needed the heightened tension of the chase from the first two series to sustain it. But Carroll escaping again was never going to be credible.

The origin of the idea came from The Scream franchise as Williamson, who had not been attracted to or got involved with Scream 3, despite having been approached to be involved, developed the idea from the Stu Macher character in Scream instead. He wanted a more traditional horror, jeopardy style trope for his characters. Developed at a time when Kevin Bacon was looking for a televisual vehicle, their worlds collided perfectly, and Bacon got onboard; and off we went with them.

But the perfection was added to by the addition of the charismatic Purefoy as Carroll. Between the two of them, Bacon and Purefoy gave us two fully rounded characters with additional twists and turns which made the first two series truly about how good needed to triumph over evil. Williamson had Jack Bauer of 24, in mind when developing Hardy and Bacon manages to fill that role with utter flawed perfection.

It spilled guts and it had gore. It was also the purity of the chase, the utter belief of the cult followers, the unbelievable believable way in which people gave their lives over to the following of a man who was the embodiment of evil that rocked it. On the other side we had a flawed man, with issues of his own trying his utmost to triumph in the end through teamwork, making the plays that appeared impossible but needy to stop evil triumphing, managing to keep us all safe in the end.

Though it never made it beyond three seasons and had, unusually for an American series, only 15 episodes per season, it shone. It kept to the format established from the beginning and I liked the structure, reveled in the characters and would have stayed loyal for further seasons. And not in a cultish way but ironically, it began to feel like I was part of a cult in being so devoted to watching it. Spooky, eh?

British television is a curious affair. Begun through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) it is funded through the universal license fee. In essence, if you wanted to watch the television, you had to pay the license fee. The BBC got it all and is state run, albeit at arms-length. Then came along commercial television in the form of the Independent Television (ITV) in 1955. Designed to bring a bit of competition to the BBC, it was paid for through advertising but still free to air… well they didn’t add another license fee to it. By the time that I was born, 1965, there was BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. And that was it. It was still years before Bruce Springsteen would moan that there were 55 channels and nothing on but here in the UK, we kept this going until in 1982, we added a fourth channel and in 1997, a fifth. With sparkling imagination, they were called Channel Four and ehm Channel Five… In between came Sky and we understood what Springsteen meant. And so, my childhood and leading up to early adulthood we had three options… But the programs made were exceptionally good. And so, here is some critical nostalgia as the lockdown has brought a plethora of reruns, new formats and platforms and old classics trying to make their way back into our consciousness as broadcasters flood their schedules with classics… or are they classics at all? Let me take you through an armchair critics’ view of what we have to see, to find out… Welcome to the Lockdown Lowdown…