Try to Follow 'The Following'

Fox's "The Following" may not make much sense, but it's hard not to watch.
Don't try to think too much about what's going on here. Source: FOX via Getty Images

Now that the second season of Fox's "The Following" is over, I'd like to take a moment to vent. (And before you ask why exactly I watch "The Following," select one of the following answers: a) because I am always on the lookout for examples from popular culture to use in teaching my Evidence class; b) because, to quote New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, the show is simultaneously "hard to turn off and even harder to watch"; or c) because I miss the frantic monomaniacal absurdity of "24.")

For those unfamiliar with the show, "The Following" catalogs the exploits, if that is the word, of one Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a college professor and serial killer, following his escape from the Virginia state penitentiary. He travels, he kills, he settles down, he kills, he travels, he kills some more. That's pretty much it.

The show's title reflects the Manson-like way that Carroll has gathered a nutty and vicious band of fans, who kill on his orders, and sometimes without. An entire federal law enforcement bureaucracy incompetently fails time and time again to get anywhere near him, but former agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) always figures out where Carroll is hiding, and, for a variety of narratively crucial but utterly implausible reasons, never tells anybody. Hardy always goes after Carroll alone, and Carroll (almost) always gets away. There are female characters, but the show's awareness of them is intermittent, and when they threaten to become too interesting, they are stabbed to death or shot to death or beaten to death or defenestrated to death, or else they vanish into witness protection.

No, that's not the venting. The venting is yet to come.

First, let's be clear: "The Following" isn't in a class with something like FX's "The Americans," which may well be the finest drama on TV now that AMC's "Breaking Bad" is gone. "The Following" is relentlessly grim and, at times, unspeakably brutal. The violent and bloody killings take place without any of the balancing brightness and humor of, say, HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Only Carroll, the resident psychopath, ever seems to smile.)

Yet "The Following" possesses (extremely obscure pop culture reference follows) what Annabeth Schott called "a watchable quality."

Anyway, two seasons of silliness have given me a great deal to vent about, but I would like to mention, for the moment, the bizarre false note about the law at the conclusion of Monday night's season finale.

As the episode ends, Carroll is arrested once more, having murdered countless people during his spree, and Hardy tells him (thus telling us, you see -- the potential audience for Season 3) that Carroll is headed back to prison for the rest of his life. (In other words, he will be allowed to escape again next year.)

But wait! Headed back to prison for the rest of his life? I don't think so.

Consider that prison escape that kicked off the first season. Carroll killed five Virginia prison guards. Under Section 18.2-31 of the laws of Virginia, the "willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of any person by a prisoner confined in a state or local correctional facility" is a capital offense. So is the "willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of a law-enforcement officer" -- say, a prison guard -- "when such killing is for the purpose of interfering with the performance of his official duties."

That's five counts each of two death-penalty offenses in the very first episode of the very first season. Life in prison? Not a chance. Virginia will try Joe Carroll for capital murder and execute him.

Unless, that is, the federal government gets to him first. I've lost track of how many federal officers have been killed by Joe Carroll or on his orders. Doesn't matter. Under Title 18, Section 1114(1) of the U.S. Code, that's another trial, and another slew of death penalty offenses. In addition, Carroll has arguably committed domestic terrorism, as defined by Title 18, Section 2331(5) -- most recently, invading a worship service at a church, where Carroll and his followers killed a number of congregants, as well as the son of a prominent evangelical pastor. That's another trial, and, very likely, another multiple death sentence.

In other words, there is a near-zero chance that Carroll will face a long life in prison during which he will, in Ryan Hardy's words, "wither away." They'd better break him out fast next season.

Don't get me wrong. These rather glaring errors don't entirely spoil the madcap fun as I ... um ... search for hypotheticals for classroom use. But they're annoying because they're easily fixable, and also because the viewer might get the wrong idea, to wit: If you are serving a life sentence and happen to escape, feel free to commit more crimes -- they will have no effect on your prison term! (For everyone else, of course, the message would be: Better buy a few more guns, especially if you live near a prison.)

Critics have long urged the writers of "The Following" to find out how the Federal Bureau of Investigation actually works (and, along the way, perhaps how witness protection and mobile-phone tracking actually work). Consulting a lawyer or two would also help. Then again, if Joe Carroll is dead, he can't very well break out of prison again next season ...

(Amplification: After I wrote this column, it was brought to my attention that the producers plan to have Joe Carroll take on a much smaller role next season. To quote Joe's own parting words to Ryan Hardy: "Good luck with that.")

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    Stephen L Carter at

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