“You are my flawed hero”: Plotting Lived Fictions and Fictionalized Lives

February 6, 2013
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The Following is a new Fox show starring Kevin Bacon as the rugged white law enforcement dude—traumatized, retired, and all but broken–who is pulled back into his old world when asked to consult, because he is simply the best and the FBI desperately need him to catch the bad guy. The bad guy, played by James Purefoy, is a charismatic psychopathic killer who was bested by Bacon once and clearly can only be caught again by him. The setup sounds and feels like a thousand film premises and not a few TV shows we’ve already seen. In fact, watching the pilot, I had to check my watch, because it felt like an entire movie’s worth of plot was crammed into those 45 minutes, starting with Purefoy’s dramatic escape and ending with his capture and the final showdown of the two antagonists.

But this wasn’t a closed story as much as the beginning of a television show, and the final dialog tells us exactly what this show will be about. Purefoy’s character, incidentally, is an English professor (Poe aficionado, though, frankly, I’ve always felt Poe’s a bit like the USian version of Conan Doyle: literature that has captured the imagination of many yet is studied very little beyond secondary school), whose obsession tips over into a ritualistic killing spree with obligatory literary references. And Bacon’s hero himself has penned a bestseller: at the beginning of the show, he captured the bad guy, saved the damsel-in-distress, got almost killed doing so, fucked the professor’s wife, and wrote a book about it.

And yet it still came as a surprise to me when the show explicitly spelled out how it was to be structured. Purefoy reveals to Bacon in a climactic prison confrontation that he has built a cult of followers who will commit murders at his behest, crimes that he expects Bacon to solve. His first literary novel was a flop, but he has learned from that failure, and the formerly lonely artist plans to collaborate with an unwilling Bacon: “I need a strong protagonist, one in whom the reader can truly invest, a flawed broken man, searching for redemption. And that is *you*! You are my flawed hero.”

The show thus literally spells out the very tropes it plan to use, letting us in on its postmodern joke where the plotting criminal is aware that he is creating a literary plot as well (Moriarty, of course, did just that in BBC’s Sherlock, but neither Sherlock nor the audience were aware of that throughout the course of the first season). This move changes what seems to be a fairly generic show into something more interesting. The show is pretty much psychopathic crimes and the dude who solves them by numbers: drunk traumatized white dude, who’s the only one with real insight, female character for whom we just care enough to make it hurt when she gets fridged, a contingent of less-competent FBI agents, and the love interest to both antagonists: former wife of the evil killer and short-term lover of Kevin Bacon.

So far so good. But then there’s the mad professor, who directs his network of “followers” like puppets from his prison cell. When he and Bacon face off in prison, he all but drafts the entire series as a story of which he is in charge and in which Bacon stars as the lead. Or, maybe, he is writer, director, producer, and main character all rolled into one in this real-life drama that he knows will capture an audience. He’s playing to the crowd of appalled yet pruriently curious spectators. Or, stated differently, by pitching his plot (in both senses of the word!) to Bacon, he counts on the public’s desire for gruesome stories and makes Bacon his victim and co-perpetrator. However, whereas within the show this audience includes everyone who read Bacon’s book, everyone who followed the news of the villain’s escape and consequent recapture, everyone who gets a guilty thrill when reading the details of the murders, outside of the show it is *us*, the television audience, whom he is targeting. This is the show’s ultimate sales pitch, and it is geared straight at us. Without an audience, Purefoy suggests, there wouldn’t be any crimes, and as the ultimate audience for whom the spectacle of bloodshed is executed, we are all but put in the place of perpetrator as spectators.

Of course, I am well aware that no actual people were harmed in the making of this show. And I’m not trying to suggest a facile conflation of reality and fiction. I do suggest, however, that this direct pitch at us and our desire for ever more bloody murders, ever more outrageous scenarios, ever more insane psychopaths, addresses how and why we crave excessive and extreme narratives—whether in reality or fiction. Purefoy very clearly uses fiction as a model for reality and then wants his reality turned back into fiction, challenging the clarity of that border within the text at the same time as the setup makes us question the structural relationship between the two.

In fact, the way the show implicates the viewers, both within the narrative and without, reminds me of the concerns I have when viewing disaster reports, where the very act of reporting the news makes the audience potentially partial perpetrators by gaining something out of listening to the suffering. The public within the show is an audience for Bacon’s potential second book, which Purefoy is in the process of drafting. And we as the outside audience are reminded quite uncomfortably what it actually is we get out of both fictional and real crime stories in gory detail. Why do we want (need?) to hear the recounting of anyone’s horrific experiences? Are we witnessing or merely spectating? And at what point does the audience become culpable?


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2 Responses to “ “You are my flawed hero”: Plotting Lived Fictions and Fictionalized Lives ”

  1. Baerbel79 on February 7, 2013 at 2:54 AM

    So far, I am intrigued by just that set up you talk about. As someone who still averts her eyes during torture scenes, the last moments of the third episode felt like an invasion of privacy of sorts, when Purefoy’s son is taught to kill, first an insect. I asked myself that same question, when does a show cater to an audience that embraces too much violence? Why does a station like TruTV have such a devoted (while niche) audience? Fascinating way to look at this show and its place in television.

    • Kristina Busse on February 7, 2013 at 3:39 PM

      Yes! I hadn’t seen the third ep yet when I wrote this and was kind of worried that this interesting meta element would all but disappear, but I think you’re totally right that this theme is brought back in the video of Purefoy’s son learning this obscene imperative (a little reminiscent of Adorno’s as well as Lacan’s (mis)reading of Kant by coupling him with de Sade and claiming a Sadean Categorical Imperative). It’s important that we as well a the characters are voyeurs and the performance in front of the camera is purposeful.

      There are so many theories on the relationship between fiction and reality, on the catharsis after going through horrors with the characters–yet what changes when the horrors are real?

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad i’m not the only one watching this 🙂