As a typical getting-to-know-you question, I once asked a 20-something Parisian exchange student staying in Southern California what she thought was the most surprising thing she’d seen while in the United States. I was sure her answer would be our penchant for eating deep-fried butter on a stick; turns out it was our lack of serial killers. Yes, thanks to American pop culture—I’m pointedly looking at you, CBS—all of the movies and television she’d watched had made it seem as if there were killers on every corner. Come for the Grand Canyon, stay for the Main Street serial killer Mardi Gras! Wherever she is today I hope she’s not watching The Following—after 42 minutes of the new Fox series she’ll probably never want to set foot here again.
The much-touted Kevin Bacon foray into television (where he isn’t actually playing Kevin Bacon) looks at what could have happened if a Jim Jones or a Charles Manson had had the power of the Internet. What do you do when a serial killer begets more serial killers?
Created by Kevin Williamson—sire of Dawson’s Creek and godfather to every pretentious teen show to follow—The Following has combined the gore of his Scream franchise with the mental warfare of The Silence of the Lambs. Williamson has a thing for talky, magnetic murderers who love to meta their way into commercial breaks, as well as have an obsession for killing fictional sorority girls. The Following, under his guidance, brings a whole new meaning to “I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over.”
In 2004, charismatic professor Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) morphed his obsessive interest in the dark works of Edgar Allan Poe into a killing spree. Long eluding authorities, Carroll was eventually pursued by FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who so engrained himself in the case he ended up having an affair with Carroll’s wife Claire (Natalie Zea). Although Hardy eventually caught Carroll, preventing one last last murder, he was injured in the fight and ultimately forced to leave the FBI.
In the present day, after years of imprisonment, Carroll has nurtured a cult-like following on the Internet. His fans, far more murderous than your average Tumblr geek, are actually a bunch of child-stealing, dog-torturing, eyeball-icepicking psychopaths who eventually help Carroll massacre his way out of a maximum security prison. Called to help in the search, Hardy returns to the case as a vodka-soaked civilian.
For all of the media scuttlebutt regarding The Following’s violent content, the majority of the brutality is off camera, which leaves us with plenty of shots of gaping neck wounds but few actual attacks (that is, I think, probably for the best). The pilot is moody, reveling in its own excessive use of pooling blood, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken as frightening. In fact, the big scare of the episode—the Drew Barrymore in a tree moment, if you will—is so weirdly jarring it’s unintentionally funny. As for the gore, that’s all you’ve got, Fox? I have eight seasons of Supernatural under my belt; until someone gets a buzzsaw in the back or a unicorn horn to the gut, there’s no way The Following is giving some poor Standards and Practices employee the vapors.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its eerie moments, as the premise of murders-amongst-us is just realistic enough to make you uneasy. (I live in L.A.—it’s not like I needed any more excuses to double-check my deadbolt five times a night.) Maintaining the creep factor will be hard though, as the story will inevitably get wilder and wackier in the need to fill out the next 14 straight weeks of episodes (according to the Fox promos anyway; initial ratings are mellow, but we all know Fox would never, ever cancel anything before it got a fair shot at success).The Following would be the perfect one-season wonder show, as the concept is more miniseries than syndication fodder, but even with mild Nielsen business it will likely go on until Bacon eventually bails in a couple of years.
With all of the eccentric and droll Sherlockian investigators filling the last decade of television, Bacon’s Hardy is haunted but refreshingly straightforward. The show’s only lightness looks like it might come from FBI agent Weston (Shawn Ashmore), clearly a fanboy of Hardy. He’s not off to a great start, however, as his first “joke” basically consists of him grousing that a dead person is one thing, but a murdered dog—what an affront to the universe! Gallows humor is good, but don’t remotely contrast the murder of a human being with the killing of a dog, it’s just stupid. (Even though, I admit, there are plenty of canines I like more than some people.)
The episode—bookended by Marilyn Manson’s drawly cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”—only gets interesting in its final act. Leading up to it, the predicable elements—Stupid cops! Betrayals! Inevitable deaths!—are all there. Even the kidnapping of Claire and Carroll’s son Joey seemed destined. (Speaking of: There’s no way that little Joey, a Bacon bit of a clone if I ever saw one, belongs to Purefoy’s Carroll.) The premise, which initially looked to be a weekly Carroll manhunt, turned out to be a feint. He is recaptured and back in orange before the end credits. As the pilot closes, it’s Carroll’s reciting of the rules of this television world, the plan, the philosophy of heroes and villains and the Campbellian call to adventure that will hopefully makeThe Following unique. And if it scares away a few international tourists along the way, well…so be it.