Fox’s ambitious new drama, The Following (Mondays, 9/8C), plays out as a gory chess match between a dour, taciturn ex-FBI agent and a cheerful, personable serial killer who goes from ‘making art’ to spawning a religion based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s also the first television series to star Kevin Bacon, so there’s that, too.
The Following opens with convicted serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) escaping from a maximum security prison leaving a very bloody scene behind him, and former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) being asked to assist the task force assigned to recapturing him.
There are two women who might figure in attempts to recapture Carroll – his ex-wife, Claire (Natalie Zea) and mother of his son, and Sarah Fuller, the one victim who survived (Maggie Grace). Not long after Carroll’s incarceration, Hardy and Claire had a brief affair – which he might not look upon with forgiveness – and then there’s the matter of Fuller his last, unclaimed victim. Because, y’see, Carroll isn’t just some nutbar serial killer – in his mind he’s making art and, until he kills her in the same ritualistic manner as the others, his magnum opus is unfinished.
Then there’s the way that – in part due to a book Hardy wrote about Carroll – Carroll has gathered followers. Not just any followers, mind you, but super fans who are willing to do whatever he wants (or what they think he wants) – even to committing murder!
Edgar Allan Poe figures heavily in The Following: Carroll’s ‘art’ is inspired by his works – and as the series progresses, it becomes clear that Carroll is not just a genius when it comes to killing, he’s also a genius when it comes to inspiring a following that, more and more, takes on the feel of a cult – using Poe’s work as a central source for a new, murderous religion.
The premiere is filled with twists and turns that make it difficult to say much about its major events once we’re past the bloody jailbreak. In that, series creator/writer Kevin Williamson has created something that is, for network TV, unique.
Like any good crime show, The Following, on a macro level, is about the battle between good and evil. One of things that Williamson does to good effect, is juxtapose the concepts of good and evil with the characters’ appearance and general manner: leading the forces of good, Hardy is a taciturn, dour sort who drinks too much and never quite fits in anywhere, while evil is represented by Carroll – a cheerful, personable sort who seems like the kind of guy you might want to have a beer with and talk about the local football team’s fortunes (or discuss the finer points of great literature…).
The FBI team Hardy is assisting includes a cult expert (Jeananne Goossen) and Agent Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) who is a big fan of Hardy’s book. Again, because of the way Williamson constructed the pilot, to reveal much more might spoil something important.
Marcus Siega directs with a mind to punching up both the violence and emotional beats of Williamson’s script though he also gives moments of quiet their due. The premiere goes way beyond what we’ve seen onscreen on network television before – though not that far beyond what been implied on shows like Criminal Minds, and not necessarily with that particular show’s misogynistic outlook.
The Following is well made in every respect and challenging both emotionally and intellectually. It might not be quite as drastic as what has gone before on cable, but it is more intense an experience than you will be expecting from network TV. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you like Dexter or American Horror Story, The Following may be for you. It has the same kind of intensity and the same mix of horror, subtlety and moments (though very few) of dark humor.
Final Grade: A-
Photos by Michael Lavine and Bob Mahoney/courtesy Fox Television