The Following had me at “Kevin Bacon and serial killers.” The question is, will it keep me tuning in on Monday nights? The answer is sort of like the plot of the series premiere, which re-airs tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox: complicated. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched the pilot yet, stop reading and come back after you do. I’ll be recapping each episode on Tuesdays throughout the season. So the short answer to the question above is yes, I’m watching. And so should you. Good or bad, we’ll have fun.)
Like a lot of folks—especially in this town, where many still think of Bacon as Ed’s son who went to Hollywood—I’m rooting for the guy. He’s an underrated actor (exhibit A, his haunting performance in The Woodsman, directed by fellow local homeboy Lee Daniels), and I’d like to watch him on a weekly basis, especially in something dark and gritty. Early word on The Following suggested Fox was doing what the network used to do a lot—pushing the limits of broadcast television. Back in the Married … With Children days, it was a revolutionary approach to programming. Today, it’s an attempt to keep up with the cable nets that now rule the hour-long serial drama. The last time a non-cable show won an Emmy for Best Drama was seven years ago—Fox’s 24.
The Following actually has a few things in common with that Kiefer Sutherland series. There’s the troubled hero, Ryan Hardy (Bacon), an ex-FBI agent called out of retirement to hunt down his arch nemesis, serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). There’s a similar frenetic pacing to the show, as character development fills the cracks between intense action sequences. There’s a supporting cast of agents, including the endearing nerd and the irritating pest. And there’s enough violence to make even the most desensitized crime-procedural fan squirm.
What works best about the pilot is Hardy and Carroll. We learn that theirs is a tangled history. A decade ago, Hardy discovered Carroll, a charming English lit professor with a jones for Edgar Allen Poe, was a psycho. Carroll murdered a bunch of co-eds and almost killed Shannon from Lost—er, Sarah (Maggie Grace). When Hardy intervened and saved Sarah’s life, Carroll stabbed him in the heart. Hardy retaliated by sleeping with Carroll’s wife, who’d already given birth to Carroll’s son. After being discharged from the FBI for reasons that we don’t fully understand yet, Hardy has a pacemaker and an alcohol problem. He also has a nice loft in Brooklyn that he leaves behind to bring Hardy back to prison and keep Sarah safe. Like I said, it’s a bit of a head-spinner.
As for Carroll, he’s a Death Row inmate who’s tech-savvy enough to use federal correctional computers to round up a legion of groupies. These aren’t your average Manson family devotees—they’re Poe-quoting wackos prepared to carry out Carroll’s sick schemes. A woman scrawls poetry on her body and stabs herself in the eye with an icepick. Two dudes pose as a gay couple to gain Sarah’s trust so they could one day kidnap her. (In this age of Obama equality, couldn’t Carroll find two actual homosexuals to help him out?)
Carroll’s jailbreak only lasts long enough to set his master plan in motion, as scores of his “followers” are activated like sleeper cells (another 24 parallel). Some seem to be serial killers in training, like the security guard who practiced by murdering puppies. Others, like the babysitter who abducted Carroll’s son, serve to torment his ex-wife and Hardy. When Carroll and Hardy finally confront each other, there’s a wicked chemistry between them. Hardy seems more defeated than the killer he’s captured for a second time. Though Carroll is behind bars, both men sense he has the upper hand.
There’s also a lot not to like about The Following. If you have trouble suspending disbelief, double your blood pressure meds before watching. At one point, an investigator plays the role of skeptical viewer: “I’m not buying two men would pretend to be gay and shack up next to a woman because some nut job told them to.” Amen! Carroll’s intellect and charisma are used to explain away all leaps of logic, of which there are many. The pilot was riddled with clichés (a seemingly dead dog flails, echoing the “sloth” victim in Seven; the hero has a booze problem; the guy at the crime scene tells Hardy, grimly, “You’re gonna want to see this”). The acting was heavy-handed at times and the dialogue either too clunky (“Dammit, we need to rip apart the library’s Ethernet!”) or hard-boiled (Hardy to Carroll: “If this book ends with anything other than your death, you better plan on a rewrite.”). Worst of all, the violence was graphic, but not shocking—throats slashed, eyes gouged, dogs murdered. Only Sarah’s demise, and Carroll’s sinister delight in describing it to Hardy, used gore creatively and to frightening effect.
The good news is that the most annoying character, a prickly female FBI agent, lasted only one episode. She’s gone in episode two, replaced by a cult expert who will hopefully do more than make angry faces and give Hardy grief (the guy’s got a heart condition—cut him some slack!). The casting move is an encouraging sign of what’s ahead. With some fine-tuning of the dialogue and less cheap, easy violence, The Following could develop one of its own. And really—would Kevin Bacon let us down?