The (Re)view from the Blog: The Following – The Complete First Season (U.K. Blu-ray)

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Label:  Warner Home Video U.K.
Release date:  02/12/13
Format:  Blu-ray
Video format:  1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio:  1.78:1 (16:9)
Soundtracks:  DTS-HD MA 5.1: English, Spanish
Subtitles:  English HOH, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Korean, Norwegian, Castilian, Latin Spanish, Swedish, Danish
Runtime:   900 mins
No. of discs:  3 x BD-50
Region Coding:  Region Free
Rating:  BBFC 15

Official Synopsis
Golden Globe winner and Emmy® nominee Kevin Bacon and UK’s James Purefoy (Rome) star in this terrifying new thriller from Kevin Williamson (The Vampire DiariesScream). When notorious serial killer Joe Carroll (Purefoy) escapes from death row and embarks on a new killing spree, the FBI calls former agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon), a psychologically scarred veteran who captured Carroll nine years earlier, after Carroll murdered 14 female students on a college campus where he taught literature. Knowing Carroll better than anyone and close with Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire, Hardy works closely with an FBI team, which includes no-nonsense agent Jennifer Mason and sharp upstart Mike Weston, and soon discovers that Carroll was not only communicating with a network of killers in the outside world, but has much more planned than just a prison escape — and there’s no telling how many additional killers are out there. As Hardy and the FBI team are challenged by the ever-growing web of murder around them, masterminded by the diabolical Carroll (who’s writing a novel with Hardy as his protagonist), Hardy will not only get a second chance to capture Carroll, but another shot at redemption, as he’s faced with not one but an entire cult of serial killers.

Review [Please note: this review originally appeared at Cult TV Times]

Kevin Williamson’s heyday as an in-demand horror feature writer was definitely in the 90s, when he authored the Scream films, as well as the first I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Faculty. However, his long-term career seems to have been really built on his television success starting with Dawson’s Creek (although not his first TV outing), and cemented recently with The Vampire Diaries and now The Following, due a second season in early 2014 on both sides of the Atlantic. If ITV spent years last century looking for a suitable replacement for The Professionals and The Sweeney without finding it, then Fox in the U.S. this century have been looking for a suitable replacement for 24, with similar results. Human Target definitely wasn’t it, nor was the recent Kiefer vehicle Touch, so does Williamson’s serial killer thriller show fill the gap?

First, the good:  this is indeed a dark, horrific, twist-laden, cliffhanger-driven serial that effectively sustains tension over the course of the series, building to a series of striking climaxes. The core concept has a lot of merit to it, and the first half of the series, in which captured serial killer Joe Carroll escapes from prison, is caught but then turns out to have used his time inside to create a network of followers ready to do his bidding, is genuinely interesting, something we haven’t seen before in this subgenre at this level. The back-and-forth to found out the detail and scale of the plan are just interesting enough to lift this into the second tier of serial killer thrillers. The mounting paranoia and set-pieces, on the other hand, often push it towards the first rank, playing on the shock of everyday events being turned into sinister murders, amplifying the horror as it becomes clear that the Following have no empathy or interest in their victims beyond knowing enough about them to get away with killing them in ways that satisfy the individual killers’ needs. Moreover, as the scale of the series opens up, it becomes clear almost anyone could be a member, and the paranoia just shoots up, especially in crowd scenes.

Performances are excellent across the board, barring one debatable choice, which we’ll address in a bit. It is a real pleasure to see Kevin Bacon doing something more interesting than either straight-forward villains or U.K. phone company ads, especially in a meaty role that serves to remind folks of why he has so many awards and nominations under his belt. His version of the damaged F.B.I. profiler stereotype gains immensely from his cold blue stare (some brilliant lighting used to bring that out in scenes), suggesting deadly depths we eventually become privy to, laying some psychological foundations to why Ryan Hardy was good at this job, but also disturbed by it. The version we see of Hardy in flashback is notably warmer, happier, more human; Bacon gets this across effortlessly.  When the time comes to pick up a gun and kick ass, he does that just as well, contrasting the character’s drive with his quite-literally damaged heart; he even at points resembles his fellow 80s bratpacker’s well-known CTU agent.

Ably supported by Feds Shawn AshmoreAnnie Parisse (Person of Interest) and later Mike Colter (The Good Wife), along with the U.S. Marshalls in the imposing shape of John Lafayette (carrying a fractious history with Hardy), this team become an eminently watchable ensemble as they race against time to gather evidence, interpret it, and move ever closer to their goals. Also on the side of law and order are initially Maggie Grace, here showing the depths Lost showed us she was capable of that Europacorp thrillers rarely ask her to reach, and CTVT favourite Natalie Zea (JustifiedUnder The Dome), who is the heart of the show, playing a very different partner (Carroll’s former wife) from Justified or Californication but digging deep into the character as the series progresses. She taps into Claire’s emotions to sell irrational actions that the scripts in the 2nd half of the series demand of her character, not losing our sympathy even as we’re screaming at the television for the stupidity witnessed (fans of 24 and Prison Break know what we mean).

Arrayed against them are a number of very effective young actors, who we will avoid mentioning and hyperlinking to, as a number of the twists depend very much on not knowing already who is or isn’t a member of Carroll’s Following. Suffice it to say that, even when their interactions could be slightly cheesy, Williamson’s oft-demonstrated facility with younger actors means we get convincing work from all of them, frequently augmenting the horror through their naturalism. This last point brings us to the first of the two most serious weaknesses in the show as a whole, and which in the end made it less of a pleasure to watch than the first half suggested it would be.

Stalwart Brit actor James Purefoy has given many solid performances on both side of the Atlantic, be they on the big or small screen, from Brit horror (and our editor’s fave) Lighthouse to period actioners Solomon Kane and Ironclad, from Coasting to Episodes via Rome. Thus it pains us to say that we found his work here to be at disconcertingly at odds with the rest of the cast in the second half. In the first half, his work in the flashbacks as the English lecturer in Boston contrasts nicely and believably with a more hardened Caroll in prison, all excellent and convincing. In the second half, however, Purefoy’s performance in the present-day scenes seems increasingly theatrical compared to the naturalism of his followers, especially those we have been following throughout, and it jars constantly. This is directly linked to the second weakness, which rears its head about halfway through the series.

WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD

The first half of the show posits that a single serial killer has managed to build a cult around his own interpretations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. This is interesting grounds for the sort of thriller The Following aims to be, and works very well for that first half. However, in the second half, in order to maintain and increase suspense, the cult turns out to be also home to a former paramilitary group, which again is fine for escalation of the series’ stakes, but fails to work on a character level. It is never made clear why some very hardened, violent professional people would align themselves with folks romanticising killing and death – the former understand it to be a job, not a religion – unless Carroll’s grand plan is revealed to be something worth their time. Unsurprisingly, it turns out not to be in the slightest.

Along with this comes a series of other bizarre decisions by the writers. While very much an escapist thriller, the first half has enough authenticity about the workings of the F.B.I. in relation to serial killers and cults to suggest significant research has been done, with credible reactions to Hardy’s increasingly off-the-books attitude. In the second half, this goes out the window, with professional law enforcement individuals doing stupid, unprofessional things solely for a cool shot for the director or to try and hike up terror, one of the oldest and now least effective tricks of the horror genre. Even non-law-enforcement characters do things that really don’t make sense in order to prolong the plot and create jeopardy. It’s a relief when certain characters do things that make sense. One thread in particular is so obviously there to set up a particular scene we realised could only happen at the very end of the series, and lo and behold, it did, ruining that particular cliffhanger.

END OF POSSIBLE SPOILERS

Thankfully, a number of set-pieces save this second half, in particular a daylight attack by a Poe-masked Follower on the streets of Boston, and the Havenport evacuation centre sequence. The war of attrition between both sides also takes some serious casualties, testing viewer loyalty while giving cast members some juicy scenes of torment, right up to the final moments. It is this willingness to put their characters through hell alongside creating horror in the middle of the everyday that means we will still come back for Season 2 despite everything, even if only just to see how that cliffhanger works out.

Video & Audio

The frosty look and extensive location work looks good in this set, but not good enough to place this in the top tier of high definition transfers. It might be to do with the need to make certain shots work better with FX, but some of the gleaming, precise interiors which benefit from HD look better than several weak outdoor and night-time shots. Audio, on the other hand, is excellent, yet another TV series with feature-quality work. John Frizzell’s excellent score deserves mention, while the musical choices featured improve as the series goes on from the far too on-the-nose choice of Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) cover in the pilot.

Extras
Additional content is usually a given on Warner sets, some of the best TV sets in the biz, but there are quite literally hours of extras to watch here. The pilot receives the TV equivalent of Warner’s brilliant movie extra the Maximum Mode, here dubbed From a Dark Place: Maximum Episode Mode of Extended Pilot. A commentary from creator Kevin Williamson and fellow EP/series director Marco Siega is paused at appropriate moments to introduce mini-featurettes and interview clips relevant to both the commentary and the pilot at that point. Unlike the DVD equivalent of yesteryear, the transitions are so smooth the first time it happens it takes a moment to realise what has happened.

7 featurettes of varying lengths are spread across the three discs, from 20+ minute pieces on Williamson and the creation of the show, and the key cult members, to shorter ones on various production elements. The Production Chronicles series collects mini-BTS pieces in chronological order, providing an interesting look at the making of the show on the ground in New York. Few stones are left unturned, and most of the major cast and crew members get to have their say.

Each disc also carries a range of deleted scenes, which range from inconsequential trims to major character beats, particularly from the finale, where 14 minutes were cut to create the version that aired. That is one of several informative nuggets that can be picked up from the creative team’s series finale commentary, which picks up nicely from the rest of the extras, and wraps things up with talk of Season 2, which was being written while the commentaries were recorded.

Conclusion
Despite the numerous weaknesses that rear their head as the series progresses, there is still so much to enjoy in this compact first season.  Fans of the cast members and the subgenre should definitely give this set a whirl.  The U.K. Blu-ray is identical to the U.S. one and is easily the way to go when choosing how to watch it, loaded with hours of in-depth extras that are even peppered with a few hints for the upcoming 2nd Season.  Bacon looks set to become as reliable a TV hero as his 80s brat pack compatriot Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer; roll on Season 2 in January 2014 both in the U.S. and in the U.K. on Sky Atlantic.