I sit at my desk, struggling to catch my breath, in awe over the literary brilliance that went into the first episode of Fox’s new series The Following. I have read pre-release reviews on the show, and they have been as varied as the speculations portrayed in Poe’s art. Denver Post television critic Joanne Ostrow writes, “[The Following’s creator] seems to be treading a familiar path but with a more adult sensibility. [Kevin Williamson has] left the vampires behind, kept the scream-worthy horror and added some smart plotting.” In stark contrast, The Washington Post’s reviewer, Hank Stuever writes, “…I realized: ‘The Following’s’ fundamental problem is neither its gore nor its brutality; it’s the display of arrogance. Tangled up in easily avoidable clichés of the genre, this is a show that is entirely too pleased with itself and its pretentious concept. It’s not that we’ve become numb. It’s that we’ve become dulled."
“Pretentious” is often a term used by those who are too ill-educated or unsophisticated to appreciate the brilliance or depth of a particular work. Stuever clearly doesn’t know his Poe, nor can he appreciate the literary merit that has gone into the series pilot. As both a well-read student of Poe and an artist, I can say with certainty that Stuver has no idea what he’s talking about. He’s poorly misinformed, a fact easily discerned by anyone who has any background in the genre.
It is with great irony that I begin with the response to the antagonist’s first novel, which he himself calls “literati pretense.” He understands the gap between art and perception, and the writers take this concept to its own level. Clearly, its naysayers have no clue of the brilliance they review. While they cover the ramblings of a madman, unaware of the literary implications, the most important being the realization of one of Poe’s greatest fears: falling into the chasm of insanity. Poe also often used the theme of the (often insane) “unreliable narrator” to express ideas far beyond the scope of his characters. Anyone who has studied Poe will know that the themes explored by The Following explores themes only barely touched by many of Poe’s works. “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Raven” are three stories mentioned by name, but beyond story titles and thematic implications, the mere mention of these stories says something important about the series and where it is going.
Starting from importance, “The Tell-Tale Heart” hints at the physical issues implicated through other characters’ dialog. Retired FBI agent Ryan Hardy obviously has some kind of health issue related to his heart, an issue that will surely reveal itself in greater detail in episodes to come. Ryan is also a clear parallel to Poe’s deductive amateur detective Auguste Dupin.
The symbolism included in the series premiere is as important as any other aspect one might analyze. Hardy’s discovery of not only Carroll’s part in the continuing murders, but the connection to Poe’s works in his followers, suggests “The Murders of Rue Morgue,” as well as other prominent Poe works. The significance of “Rue Morgue” demonstrates the implication of Carroll’s ability to reduce his followers to the mental state of an orangutan—capable of great destruction but unaware of the effects of their mayhem.
By connecting the murders with the unfinished work, Poe’s “Lighthouse,” the writers make a point about the power of words. Poe died after writing three pages of “The Lighthouse,” and yet Carroll is able to harness the power Poe has left behind and use it against his fellow man. There is repeated reference to “The Black Cat,” as well as reference to the often poorly understood “The Cast of Amontillado.” By referencing the lost clues that might reside behind closed walls, the story's authors offer deep commentary on what is versus what is perceived, an offshoot of Poe’s strong themes of the unreliable narrator. When Carroll refers to Hardy as “the flawed hero,” he speaks not only of the ex-agent who has lost sight of his greatest nemesis’ intent. This, of course, plays upon the literati philosophy of author intent. The gay couple draws attention from the babysitter, the babysitter represents the “unfinished work” portrayed in Poe’s unfinished short story “The Lighthouse,” and Carroll’s antagonistic leads play against Hardy’s predetermined views about the serial killer and the power he holds over all he’s affected.
The only other thing made clear is that Carroll is intent on creating a Poe-inspired masterpiece of his own by riding the coattails of the Gothic horror master. Whether or not he will succeed lies in the hands of The Following’s writers. I suspect they have a decent idea of what they’re going. Whether or not the general audience will identify with the brilliance the writers are tapping into remains to be seen.