Following "The Following"
If you've been watching TV anytime in the last quarter century, you know it isn't a rare occurrence for two stations to air shows about a similar topic at the same time. It's a battle of the ratings: whoever Nielsen says is the prettiest girl at the prom emerges as the winner.
This mid-season, there are two new shows that are attempting to address "cult" mentalities: CW's aptly named "Cult," and Fox's "The Following."
I expected to like "Cult." It's a show about a show, for one thing, and I'm all about the meta. There's a central mystery, some actors with whom I'm familiar, but the pilot episode was anything but memorable. The characters are wooden, squeezing whatever air is left in those lifeless words out with sloppy delivery. Instead of seeing people, I found myself watching archetypes interacting onscreen. Are the girl and guy going to team up and work together? I was already mentally snoring by then...which is too bad, because I like the CW, and I thought the show's concept had a lot of potential.
Besides, they had Robert Knepper. Robert Knepper! If you have Robert Knepper on your team and you still go wrong, you only have yourselves to blame.
"The Following," on the other hand, didn't seem all that exciting to me at first. Following (heh) wife Kyra Sedgwick's successful run on TNT crime drama "The Closer," it seemed to me like Six Degrees was angling for his shot at small-screen stardom. It didn't help that right before I watched the show, I read an excerpt from an interview in which the Baconator whined both about how much it sucked to be famous, and how much it sucked to be normal when he went out in disguise. Boo freakin' hoo.
Yet when I watched the pilot of "The Following," I was immediately engaged. The creator (Kevin Williamson of "Dawson's Creek" and "The Vampire Diaries" - who, to be fair, likely had more clout in the show's execution that those of "Cult") knew that most cardinal of rules about screen narratives: the audience doesn't have to like the protagonist, but they must be compelled to watch him/her.
"Why's he drinking so much water?" I asked my husband during one of the first shots of Bacon's Ryan Hardy.
"Because he's an alcoholic," Ryan replied.
There it was: not staring us in the face, but obliquely referencing a problem using a subtler breed of cues. It's a balancing act to remain just over your audience's heads, making them stretch to meet you, but I found out right away that "The Following" wasn't going to pander. And I like that in my media.
As a counterbalance to the "audience doesn't have to like the protagonist" sentiment, we've got the other side of the coin, which it seems that "Cult" forgot to address. In a well-crafted show, your "bad guys" have to be as compelling and, in many ways, loveable as your heroes. Sure, it's squicky that our mysterious friends like to run around killing people, but they have complex, tortured psyches, and just want to belong to a comprehensible social framework in which they are safe and loved. Though what they do is despicable, a part of you has to be rooting for them to succeed - and I think "The Following" nails that completely.
I haven't tuned in to "Cult" since that ill-fated pilot, but it's since been bumped to Friday nights, and that's never a good sign. My beloved "Fringe" managed to survive a season or two in the Friday doldrums, but only because it had accumulated a significant enough...well, following before that point.
Meanwhile, "The Following" on March 4 received a second-season pickup. Why? Because its characters are dimensional, and its plot isn't ludicrous. The biggest thing "Cult" forgot to do was empathize with its outcasts, the sort of people who, honestly, are watching a lot of the CW's shows, mostly the ones that aren't surviving beyond a season or two (btw, setting your fictional show on your own network is a major no-no). For me, watching "Cult" was like watching a terrible ethnography of my own nerd people, and it didn't rub me the right way at all.
I'm not really one for stab-y, slice-and-dice mayhem, and yeah, "The Following" has its share of gore, but since it's a beautifully made show, I'm willing to avert my eyes every so often. The biggest thing Kevin Williamson has going for him is that he clearly loves his shows - the material is treated with the utmost care. And that, ultimately, is why I'm willing to be a Follower, to the end of this season, and beyond.
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.