Reviews, Recaps, and Personal Thoughts on All Things TV

Archive for February, 2014

‘The Following’ Wears Its Sophomore Season Well

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The Following, Season 2

The Following, debuting its first season in January of 2013, had an interesting premise and a lot of potential but suffered from poor execution and over-the-top writing. The premise: Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is a serial killer and author who garners a cult following which finds inspiration in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. This following helps him to escape prison and begin writing his next novel, whose central character is FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the man who put Carroll behind bars.

The premise is intriguing, especially with the added element of Edgar Allen Poe’s macabre work from which to draw imagery inspiration. However, the execution left something to be desired. Though the characters weren’t quite one-dimensional: Ryan Hardy was destroyed by the Joe Carroll case; shot in the chest and requiring a pace maker, he became an alcoholic to escape the demons that still haunted him, and believed that death followed him wherever he went. Joe Carroll wanted to write his next novel (his first one was a flop) centered on destroying Ryan Hardy’s life. Add to that mix that Ryan was in love with Joe’s ex-wife Claire, and that Joe had a young son, who he was intent on being reunited with, and I was still intrigued. Also compelling was the fact that the central characters come to learn that people in their lives that they’ve known and trusted for years were actually followers of Joe, who were placed there so that they could strike at the opportune moment.

The problem with all of that, however, is how melodramatic and ridiculous the show ended up being. After Carroll escaped prison and met with his followers at a giant estate that became their headquarters and hideout, he managed to kidnap his ex-wife and son, and yet still allude the FBI for an entire season despite the fact that he stayed in one place for most of said season. The FBI was seemingly incapable of accomplishing anything. The characters of the cult were annoying, dispensable, and always doomed to fail—which made them boring and predictable.

Joe Carroll himself was the biggest problem of all. He was supposed to be brilliant and charismatic, but he strutted around his mansion screaming about metaphors and reciting his own terrible prose that it was hard to believe that he could ever inspire dozens of people to not only follow him, but to become murderers.

Ryan Hardy was a tortured person who was forever one step behind Joe Carroll, and forced to feel bad for himself as people around him died. The story was predictable, the ending foolish and laughable (Joe Carroll appeared to “die” by blowing up in a lighthouse, but his face as he screamed, “No! Noooo!” behind a wall of flames was so absurd that it had to be staged). The season ended with Ryan believing Joe was dead, and reconnecting with his love, Claire, only to have one of Joe’s followers pop out of nowhere and stab the both of them.

And now we get to season two. Which is such a markedly different show that I am shocked and pleasantly surprised. When season two opens, it’s been a year since Ryan and Claire were stabbed, and you learn immediately that Claire did not survive. But Ryan turned his life around—he quit the FBI, he goes jogging, he’s sober—and works as a criminology professor in New York. But at night, he becomes a secret vigilante, hunting down the remnants of Joe Carroll’s followers (called “Carrollers”) outside of the law.

Removing Ryan from the FBI was one of the best decisions this show could make. Ryan Hardy became so boring and tortured acting as the good guy. Playing by a specific set of rules, where else could his character go except to remain tragic and stuck repeating the same damn plot points? But Ryan Hardy as vigilante? So much better. He seeks revenge, and he will kill. Oh, and he believes Joe is alive.

And of course Joe is alive. He’s living in a trailer park in the middle of nowhere with a prostitute who wrote to him in prison, and her daughter. He’s in hiding, with a glorious beard and an attempt at an American accent. He claims he has reformed, and hasn’t killed anyone since he staged his own death. And it seems it’s true—he is truly struggling with his identity.

But when a cult of copycats, wearing Joe Carroll masks, storm a New York subway and murder a car of people shouting, “Resurrection!” and “Ryan Hardy can’t stop us,” it unfolds a chain of events far more interesting than anything that happened in season one.

Suddenly, there is a new cult, trying to draw Joe out of hiding, and it works. And Ryan Hardy continues to work outside the law (except with the help of his law-enforcement niece, which conveniently allows him to continue to have access to tracing phone calls and the like) helping to erase the ridiculousness of the first season with the FBI appearing to be completely incompetent.

The new cult is the best part of this season (and the show, I believe). Led by an art dealer named Lily, the cult is a hodgepodge of international orphans that Lily picked up over the years and formed a family (they all call her Mother) of twisted psychos. It’s clear that Lily wants Joe to complete that family.

What set this season apart for me right from the start was how it actually works as a suspenseful and creepy show now. Credit has to go predominantly to the brilliantly talented Sam Underwood (who is really good at playing psychos), who plays a set of sick and twisted twins—Luke and Mark. Luke slicks his hair back and Mark wears his on his forehead but you don’t need that small physical distinction to tell them apart because Underwood is a master. Luke is more assertive, more cruel and violent, but more charismatic (the kind of charisma that I think James Purefoy is lacking as Joe Carroll). Mark is bashful, shy, almost sweet, and struggles with emotion.

Together, they murder for their mother and then “have fun” with the body. It is implied that Luke enjoys having sex with corpses, but Mark likes to talk to them as though they were alive. Luke and Mark are chilling and strange.

And yet I find myself most drawn to this family of psychopaths this season. Ryan Hardy’s storyline takes a backseat to the intrigue of this new strange cult, and I find myself actually hoping that they don’t get caught, so I can see how they handle situations next. The characters are wholly more interesting than anything we saw from season one, and the show made a smart decision to kill off almost all of the original members of Joe Carroll’s cult, leaving only Emma (who they’ve somehow made less annoying, though I don’t know how). Gone, too, are the Edgar Allen Poe references and inspirations, which were becoming tedious and contrived.

Even Joe Carroll is a better character this season. He doubts himself, questions his identity, and feels failure—as a writer, as a leader, as a father. When we see Joe murder this season, we believe that he is a serial killer who takes pleasure in the sick things he does. There was some disconnect with that in season one but, removed from his cult, there is more of a realness to him that makes him more believable.

I truly had no idea how The Following could pull off a second season without just repeating the same storylines from the first season. But it’s like watching a completely different show. They removed the elements that weren’t working, took the characters out of settings that were doing nothing for them, and introduced a slew of truly intriguing and scary characters. The acting is better and the writing is better. Whereas the first season was utterly predictable, I believe this season has the potential to shock me—and I hope there will be twists. I truly struggled to get through the entirety of the first season. The second season has done the unthinkable: Made me excited to tune in every Monday. Should I say it? I’m going to say it: I’m a follower.

LOST Can Still Be Great, Despite Its Short Comings

“I can’t go play a rock concert after this! This…doesn’t matter. None of this matters. All that matters is that we felt it.” –Charlie Pace (Sideways world), 6×11 Happily Ever After

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LOST was one of the most creatively ambitious, epic, and polarizing shows on television. Debuting in 2004, it was an immediate hit that, over its six seasons, developed a rabid cult following of people who both thought it was great and people who felt cheated by the entire series. With a large, international cast, LOST told the story of a plane of people who crash-landed on an island (also known as the Island, a character unto itself) that possessed, among other things, mysterious smoke monsters, magical healing properties, remnants of a sociological experiment gone wrong, and the actual manifestation of the demons of the past that haunted each character.

Season one was very deeply about the characters themselves, with every episode focusing on a different character and the audience learning, through flashbacks timed perfectly to parallel with events on the Island, who these people were before their plane crashed, and just how broken their lives had been. The mysterious happenings of the Island took a backseat to the ways in which these characters began to wipe clean the slate of their existence with the fresh start they had been given in this place.

Season two delved much further into the mythology of the Island, focusing centrally on the existence of a hatch that was opened at the end of season one, that housed secrets of people who had been there before, and also introduced a creepy clan of Others that shared the Island with the survivors and appeared to worship some benevolent god-like man named Jacob (who is introduced much later).

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Over the next four seasons, the show attempted to balance its storytelling between Island mythology and character development, and it didn’t always work. Many, many questions were asked and never answered. The final season, which finally introduced Jacob and suggested that he was, all along, the very central key to the show, chose to go back and centralize the kind of excellent character storytelling that they did in season one, to the frustration of many (including myself) who just wanted answers. Jacob was only an idea for five seasons, until suddenly he was everything the show was supposed to be and apparently held all of the answers. Only Jacob’s character served to further confuse the mythology of the show without actually answering any of the questions before him or after. The concept of Jacob had thrilled me for five seasons but when we finally got him, I was disappointed that he wasn’t what I thought he was going to be nor was I even sure what he was at all. And the most disappointing part of all is that Jacob didn’t even really seem to fit into the story lines told throughout seasons one through five, when I thought he would close the circle of the show and bring everything together.

Full disclosure: I was obsessed with LOST. When I was in high school, my parents bought me the first season for Christmas because they thought I would like it, and so I sat down with the DVDs and a bowl of clementines and marathoned the first season (my first ever binge-watch!), which hooked me almost instantly. It then became a sort of hobby through the second half of high school and all of college. I would watch the episodes, and then I would re-watch them and devour them. I would go online and discuss it with strangers. I would read theories and form my own. I would research philosophy, religion, freaking quantum physics (though with that last one “research” is synonymous with “Wikipedia”); anything that I thought could help me better understand and appreciate the depth of what I was consuming. I would quote the show constantly. I had to create a website for a Digital Publishing class I took my junior year and I created a fan website for LOST. I had to give a speech once and I chose to talk about “Fate vs. Choice” because of the themes I studied while watching LOST.

I was obsessed, but not maniacally so. I just loved it. It was so much fun to me to take part in those things, to become more intelligent overall because I could take one show I was watching and branch out from it to learn things about the world, and myself. I felt this way growing up with Harry Potter, too. You better understand other things you’re learning in school because you can see those things applied in media you love and admire. In loving LOST the way that I did, and assigning it value in my own life, LOST made me a better student, a better writer, a better consumer of media, and a better person and friend, because that’s just what healthily engrossing yourself in things you love can do to you. And when LOST was over, I very seriously asked myself, “Well…now what am I going to do with my life?” There has never been a show before nor after that was so central to what I chose to do with my time.

ImageLOST still remains one of my favorite shows of all time, but four years after the series finale, I do see its flaws in a way I didn’t when I was so much a part of it. I still find the show absolutely brilliant, but I also can’t deny my disappointment with much of it. Like how it never really seemed to choose what it really wanted to be about, which left the series as a whole feeling a bit lopsided and all over the place. This also contributed to the opening of storylines that the writers could never devote proper time to, because they had to continuously introduce new story lines that were apparently more focused on where the show needed to go. (I’m looking at you, mysterious painted woman holding a rat from Ben’s past. Like, what?)

When fans demanded answers to these questions, the ones the writers gave seemed to be afterthoughts and were wholly unsatisfying. (The Numbers were really just Jacob writing a chalk list on a wall of potential candidates to replace him? What? I read a way better theory online two seasons prior where the Numbers were an equation that was part of a Chaos Theory. And I loved that fan theory so much more, because it made the Numbers intriguing and important without really needing to be explained or a part of the story beyond that they existed on the Island and suggested something terrible was coming. That’s so much better! Chalk list??? CHALK LIST? But I digress.)

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So yes, the show went off into a million directions, many of which led nowhere. Again, things either weren’t explained (like, um, WHAT IS THE ISLAND?) or were explained poorly and to nobody’s satisfaction (the whispers are the voices of dead souls trapped on the island? I would have preferred you left that one unexplained). By the time LOST was to its final season, there was no way everyone could ever be satisfied. There were too many doors (hatches?) that had been opened, that they couldn’t possibly ever shut all of them, even if they wanted to or tried. I understand the biggest angers among fans, I do. I wanted to know what the Island was, too. But I have a feeling that if they answered it concretely, I would be disappointed (much like the Numbers), and as someone who spent a large amount of time enjoying dissecting the mystery myself, I thought, “Isn’t it better to speculate about something long after it ended than be disappointed in the moment? Isn’t it more satisfying that way?”

I think many would say no. But what I have come to decide about LOST is that it shouldn’t be about the big picture. From the beginning, LOST was a story of a group of people who were figuratively lost in their lives, who then crash landed on an island and then were literally lost in the world. But the core of the show, and the show at its absolute best, was these people. Who they were before the Island, and who they became after it. How they changed each other. And when you make that the most important idea that the show could explore, what the Island was doesn’t matter, really. The only thing that matters is that it’s where these people found redemption. (Which I believe is what Christian is telling Jack, in this scene.)

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All of the other sci-fi stuff, that was cool—the Others, the Hatch, the Numbers. It was cool and I liked it and I don’t know if 4 years later I really feel particularly cheated that many of those questions weren’t answered either. For me, LOST has always been about how it made me feel. I think it’s possible to have profound scenes throughout a series with arguable flaws, and the series can still be great, because those scenes made you feel something at all. When John Locke has a crisis of faith over the meaning behind pushing a button in a hatch on an island, I don’t necessarily need to know what that button means or why it’s there or how it fits into the story. That stuff doesn’t matter to me! I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still desperately wanted to know. But my desire to know wasn’t greater than or equal to the emotions I felt when I realized the button was a metaphor for faith, and the way that fit into John Locke’s life as we knew it through flashbacks and his time on the Island.

And it’s the scenes like that that make LOST a great show. Is it flawed that the catalysts they threw at their characters to incite amazing scenes like the Man of Science, Man of Faith conversation ultimately led nowhere? Perhaps. But LOST was so ambitious, with such a deep and sprawling story and it’s not surprising that they maybe couldn’t get it all right. (Also of note, season 3 of LOST—widely accepted to be its worst season—was a victim of the infamous 2007 writer’s strike. All shows suffered.)

The ending of LOST was the most polarizing moment of the series. But I found it absolutely breathtakingly perfect. And I still do. Four years later, the moments I recall when I think about the end of the series aren’t the answers, or the showdown between Jack and Locke/the Man in Black. The thing that I remember is the emotional moment of all of them reuniting in the church, and how that made me feel.

ImageIn the end, LOST became a series of striking character studies. I’m not sure if the Island was ever supposed to make sense, or if it just existed to propel our characters towards their destiny, or if the writers just screwed up. I can understand if you needed it to end a different way. But to me, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I felt it.

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