Lavish advance hype drew us to episode one of The Following (Tuesdays Sky Atlantic), but when we got there we found the same hype had killed it. An hour was spent revealing, in grisly flourishes, what the ads had given away already. James Purefoy was Joe Carroll, a genius serial murderer and master manipulator who had progressed from hands-on slaughter and had an army of amateur killers under his control.
The man who didn’t know this was ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon). He was an expert at catching Carroll – when he did it before, it made them both celebrities. Now Hardy was summoned out of retirement when Carroll escaped from jail. We knew catching him wouldn’t help. Hardy found this out just before the end credits.
The Following – a new series by Scream writer Kevin Williamson – moved at Law & Order high speed, with a new info-dump or gore-splat every five minutes. There were some thrills in realising just how many supporting characters were dormant killers. This could not conceal that it was a nasty, hollow thing, with a low opinion of its audience and a poor understanding of the influences it fed off.
Bacon was lumbered with an identikit maverick cop character, hastily dolled up with a drink problem and heart condition. In the other corner was Purefoy and his strangely unconvincing British accent. He was meant to be a Hannibal Lecter figure: leave a tin opener loose on the work surface and he’ll kill you and everyone on your street with it, but he’s read books too, specifically those of Edgar Allen Poe. Carroll believed death was beauty and murder was art.
He also agreed with Poe that the eyes were the window to the soul, so he liked to gouge people’s eyes out. The nearest The Following could get to an imaginative, Dexter-esque, so-horrible-it’s-exciting killing was a woman with no eyes. Its attempt at a fava beans/Chianti moment was Purefoy reporting that the seven tendons connecting the eyeball to the brain take a lot of effort to sever. Ugh.
The Poe thing was also a will-this-do shortcut to making Hardy a gifted detective. Ticking off the literary references took the place of deduction: Hardy had a Poe quote to explain everything, like Dot Cotton does with the Bible. The prissy, rule-bound female detective whose patch he’d been parachuted onto didn’t know any Poe, and was consequently always a step behind.
None of these were the show’s most annoying easy way out, though. Williamson is from that 90s-00s horror school that mistakenly decided jolts are as effective as chills. BOO! The Following said, and the first time there was a flow of adrenaline, a chemical reaction that made the pupils dilate and the brain want to be part of this naughty party. The first time.
The ninth time it said BOO!, complete with an absurdly loud and elongated sound effect like cold glass being stretched, my heart didn’t flicker and I missed half the next scene because I was rolling my eyes. There might as well have been a caption filling the screen: “We are currently unable to create anything unsettling using story and dialogue. Please bear with us.”
There was one surprise. When it was laid out in full, that apparently clever set-up didn’t actually make sense. Carroll had recruited his minions online while serving his sentence, having hacked his way onto the internet during supposedly secure library time. So either these sheep were murdering on the orders of an anonymous avatar, or Carroll had played on his own notoriety but had done so without the authorities noticing. Either way: phooey.
Also suffering slightly from prior knowledge was another US import, Louie (Tuesdays Fox). People with good taste and sneaky transatlantic technology have been raving about Louis CK’s broken sitcom for years, and here it finally was on British telly – but the recklessly experimental stuff was hardly in the first episode, which was a micro-budget mix of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, with CK’s alter ego alternating between stand-up routines and mortifying mishaps.
The main difference between the characters of Larry David and Louie is that, while Larry still has the capacity to be amazed and disappointed that everything has gone wrong, Louie does not. He gave up long ago. His stand-up in episode one was based on the idea that anything that assuages loneliness – buying a puppy, for instance, or finding a wife – is merely a way of banking sadness for later. Relationships will end in heartbreak, unless she’s the one, in which case she’ll eventually die.
This heartwarming realism set the mood for Louie’s first date with a younger, cooler, sexier woman (Chelsea Peretti), an encounter that irritated both of them from the start. Louie’s attempt to woo her was like a wounded brown bear trying to unwrap a Kinder egg. The nadir was when Louie managed to give the impression that it was he, and not another restaurant customer, who’d hammered on the restroom door seconds after she went in there, demanding to be let in for a “dump”. Perhaps the funniest scene, though, was the silent subway ride into town, with Louie unable to stop grinning creepily every time their gazes met – a cracking visual joke suggesting CK is a far better comic actor than David or Seinfeld.
Mostly the debut episode was merely very funny, but there were glimpses of what will make Louie special. The young woman’s elderly, cantankerous, nude neighbour was one, as was the turnaround at the end of the episode, when Louie suddenly questioned the whole artifice of dating, and why he had to be the only one who was desperate to impress. “I’m raising two girls. I’m a real man. What do you do?”
She ran off, got into an inexplicable helicopter, and flew away. But I think Louie and I will stick together for life.