It wasn’t so long ago that, save for late night talk shows and the occasional Saturday Night Live hosting gig, still-viable movie stars would rarely make an appearance on television. Many had already paid their television dues and, having made the leap to the big screen, it seemed few had the desire to return until their star had faded. Then a funny thing happened. Television started to get good. Shows like HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire, FX’s The Shield and Nip Tuck, and AMC’s Mad Men garnered critical and commercial adoration, and proved that the ”idiot box” could be every bit as edgy, intelligent, and downright entertaining as cinema. Soon, A-list movie stars like Holly Hunter (Saving Grace), Glenn Close (Damages), and others were top-lining series. Now, with the Fox serial killer thriller The Following, Kevin Bacon joins the ranks of A-list talent defecting to television.
Bacon stars as former FBI agent, Robin Hardy, once one of the bureau’s top behavioral analysts, who, after nearly losing his life while apprehending serial killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), entered into a short-lived (and much-frowned-upon) relationship with said killer’s wife, Claire (Natalie Zea), that, ultimately, cost him his career.
Eight years later, Hardy is a drunken recluse, holed up in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, and living off of his disability checks and the royalties from the book he’s written about the Carroll investigation. He’s awoken by a call from his former superior who has some alarming news; Joe Carroll has escaped from prison, and Hardy is the only man who can help them catch him before he kills again. Hardy reluctantly returns to Quantico where he is meant to serve as an advisor for the team tasked with catching Carroll, but he quickly finds himself drawn in much deeper as he is forced to relive the traumatic experiences from nearly a decade earlier. Hardy is determined to protect those Carroll left behind, including Claire and her young son, as well as Carroll’s last victim, Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace).
It soon becomes obvious, however, that Carroll is not working alone, and that the brilliant and persuasive former literary professor has amassed a following of homicidal groupies who are helping him write the epic final chapter in his bloody tale, with Hardy forced into the role of unwilling collaborator.
The Following is the brainchild of Scream writer, Kevin Williamson, and, as with Scream (and the bulk of Williamson’s output), the author recycles bits and bobs from other works and reconstructs them into something (mostly) fresh and vital. Being that Carroll’s entire plot necessitates frequent face-time with Hardy, Hannibal Lecter comparisons are inevitable, but the exchanges between Hardy and Carroll are far more contentious than Lecter’s usual sitdowns, and that is thanks to Bacon’s mercurial Hardy who, on the surface, at least, seems a far more dangerous and unhinged man than his incarcerated counterpart. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable, and their interactions are easily the most compelling and exciting moments of the show.
As procedural dramas go, The Following’s premise dictates that it be more than just the “killer of the week” fare, with a fairly complex, constantly evolving storyline, a large roster of supporting players, and a hint of conspiracy, elevating it beyond shows like Criminal Minds, CSI, and whatever Law & Order series happens to be airing this decade.
Still, The Following is not without its share problems. As with many procedurals (both in film and television), it often seems that the writers go out of their way to simplify things for their audience rather than have said audience do the work for themselves. The aforementioned hit CBS series, Criminal Minds, is one of the biggest offenders of this sort of spoon-feeding as every episode features at least one moment in which one of the show’s profilers spits out a huge chunk of expository dialogue, littered with factoids and allusions to famous, real world cases, as if in to educate or bring the viewer up to speed with what’s happening. The Following isn’t nearly as egregious in its attempts to “educate” its audience, but there are some moments, especially in the pilot episode, where I found myself cringing as Hardy is forced to explain a ridiculously simple clue (the word Nevermore, painted in blood on the wall of a garage) to a group of federal agents who, apparently, have no idea what it means despite the fact that Carroll has well-documented Poe obsession (his crimes are modeled after the author’s works). Are we to believe that, save for Hardy, the agents in charge of tracking the man down are somehow unaware of Poe’s most famous and oft-referenced work?
The pilot episode is a bit clunky at times, but, luckily, things get better (and smarter) as the series progresses over the first four episodes I was sent to preview, with some effective scares, nifty murder set pieces, and a few big surprises. While The Following doesn’t push the envelope to the same degree as its basic cable counterparts, the level of violence and gore is surprisingly high for a major network series, and the production values belie its television origins. While it’s not necessarily a believable one, the premise is pretty novel and shows a lot of promise. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the series can maintain the freshness, urgency, and intensity of these first few episodes, but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out, and gladly count myself as one of The Following’s followers.
The Following premieres January 21st at 9/8c, on FOX!