Barring another wildly improbable twist of the real-life variety, “The Following” aired its last episode Monday, having been canceled by Fox. And the two-hour finale only drove home how the program squandered its assets, with the end coming two years and many dozens (if not hundreds) of killings too late.
Initially promising with the casting of Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, “The Following” overstayed its welcome, a victim of lazy writing and a decidedly grim streak that treated human life cavalierly even by the standards of primetime crime shows. That included borrowing repeatedly from movies (from “Psycho” to “The Fugitive”), while the life expectancy of FBI agents who weren’t series regulars was shorter than the red-shirted crewmen on “Star Trek.”
By all rights, the series should have ended along with the cat-and-mouse game that pitted Bacon’s reluctant Agent Ryan Hardy against Purefoy’s suave serial killer Joe Carroll. But modest first-season success necessitated new wrinkles, unleashing several rival sets of psychopaths to sustain the program through seasons two and three.
The third season, in a very tired device, actually had Ryan begin to go a bit crazy himself, fouling up its one true moment of grace, when Joe was finally executed. After that, Joe appeared to him in visions, which as much as anything seemed to be happening because Purefoy is a compelling presence and, hey, he was already on payroll.
As for the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), Ryan engaged in a series of encounters with the incredibly resourceful serial killer Theo (Michael Ealy), who remained dangerous even after putting a bullet in his head. Their tumble into the falls allowed Ryan – resigned to his fate – to essentially wipe the slate clean, recognizing that he was doomed forever to be denied the comforts of home, much like his spiritual predecessor Jack Bauer, who suffered mightily to keep the rest of us safe and secure.
In a display of the program’s nasty streak, those final hours put both children and a pregnant woman in jeopardy, while revealing another traitorous FBI agent, working on behalf of a shadowy organization that Ryan will apparently devote himself to tracking down. Their onscreen representative was played by “The Americans’” Annet Mahendru, who – given “The Following’s” history – delivered the night’s funniest line when she said, “I hate torture.”
The shame of it is that Bacon brought a grizzled charisma to the part, and there were solid supporting players, including his sort-of partner played by Shawn Ashmore, who suffered every bit as much as Ryan did. By contrast, this season largely wasted the addition of Zuleikha Robinson as Ryan’s love interest, and his niece Max (Jessica Stroup) too often felt like a note from the network – a strong female character to offset all the testosterone being thrown around.
Frankly, “The Following” only earned a third season by a hair, and its obituary was written when Fox enjoyed success with “Empire” and “Gotham,” reducing its need for another drama of marginal appeal. Bacon comes away from the experience unscathed, other than adding a TV dimension to that “six degrees of” game involving his inordinately busy film career.
The series, though, is merely another reminder – especially with TV’s newfound fondness for limited series – that not every handsome pilot is built to last. And all “The Following” leaves behind is a trail of dead bodies that led to a dead end.