Is The Following still worth, ya know, following?

I really kind of love Kevin Bacon.  I think, for instance, that it’s cool that he seems to be aging at a relatively real-human rate and has been married to the same woman for over 25 years.  I love the 6 degrees game that seems to never take more than 3 degrees to connect him to another Hollywood star.  And, despite myself sometimes, I have loved watching him in Fox’s The Following.

Season one was a tour-de-force by Bacon as vulnerable, dogged, detached Agent Ryan Hardy in a chilling pas de deux with a serial killer and his cult of followers.  They struck with flash-mob-like randomness and with all the queasiness-inducing vigor (remember that ice pick in the first episode?) of a John Carpenter film.  As though they were reading my mind (or at least my blog) the series shed its Poe quoting pretensions by season two (an affectation of Hardy’s lit prof nemesis Dr. Joe Carroll) and even through the season’s weaker moments (like that other murder cult Joe co-opted. Really?), The Following proved its plot twists hard to predict and its dishing out of slasher-film-like gore unflinchingly reliable.  If you dig horror, it has been hard not to follow along.

This season faces a steep challenge, however: swapping out the bad guy from Poe-obsessed professor cum psychopathic cult leader Joe Carroll (a truly creepy and compelling–even when his character stretched credulity–James Purefoy).

Uh, yeah, I think I am starting to….

Last season introduced a second set of serial murderers led by Lily Gray (a clever and sexy Connie Nielsen) as a sort of rival for the attentions of FBI Agent Ryan Hardy and a would-be partner-in-mayhem to Carroll.  This new wrinkle worked well enough, setting up new questions of loyalty, trust, and strategy for both the FBI investigators and the show’s evil do-ers and, perhaps, tacitly acknowledging that the series’ manhunt premise could only go on so long with Joe Carroll at the center.  Ultimately, the season’s end, however, precluded carrying forward much of what worked with the Lily Gray twist, eliminating several strong supporting characters–Joe’s closest follower as well as Gray and the “alpha” of her identical twins, Luke.

Now Joe is in jail and off-screen.  And Mark Gray–the remaining twin–is seeking revenge.  And the murders are still grisly.  And Agent Ryan Hardy is still haunted.  And I still have the sinking feeling that everyone whose last name isn’t Hardy might be lying.

And I just don’t know that it’s working for me.

Mark Gray has followers?  Why would anyone follow or cooperate with him?  Why are we acting like all serial killers function as central nodes in a network of sociopaths waiting to be triggered by a cryptic text to their smart phones?

And Luke seems more sad than scary at this point, no?  I know that’s on purpose but, well, for what purpose?

This show used to be pretty clearly about a grand battle between good and evil.  The good guy’s nemesis was literally an ideologue who believed in the beauty of darkness and death and the power of murder to allow one to transcend average humanity.  It was actually fairly cosmic in its proportions and its inquiry into how “good” Hardy had to be to overcome Joe or whether this ongoing encounter was itself transforming Ryan Hardy into little more than an obsessive sociopath himself.

But now we’re chasing a mourning, mentally ill guy who’s getting taken advantage of even by the other sociopaths around him.  It feels more like a single episode of Gotham in terms of stakes.  Can this significantly thinner approach to the moral dimension of the drama keep us following along for a whole season?

Not sure even Kevin Bacon can do that.

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