The pilot for FOX’s serial killer drama “The Following,” starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, is so slick, so tense and so grisly that it sets a high bar for the series that follows. But it’s the subsequent three episodes that truly set the tone for what emerges as another disappointing attempt by network television to channel the best of cable TV.
The set-up involves an imprisoned serial killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), who shares a dark past with a troubled FBI agent, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), including mutual affection for the same woman, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea). When Carroll manages to escape, Hardy is determined to protect the sole survivor (Maggie Grace) of Carroll’s previous reign of terror. What Hardy doesn’t yet know is just how far Carroll’s reach extends.
Anyone looking for soapy twists and turns, shocking violence and a fast-paced ride will get what they want from creator Kevin Williamson and crew, just don’t expect the show to dig deep into its characters or give you much to think about in the process. That makes the most controversial element of the show — its graphic violence — even more troubling. Although “The Following” isn’t as gory as “The Walking Dead” or as demented as “American Horror Story: Asylum,” it’s very extreme by network TV standards. “Criminal Minds” no longer has to worry about being the most stomach-churning show on network TV.
The extreme content is just one sign of the obvious influence of cable dramas on “The Following,” including its serialized storytelling and high-caliber cast. But imitating a style isn’t the same as achieving it. The violence in “The Following” isn’t just chilling in the mode of “Walking Dead” or “Horror Story,” it’s mindless. That’s because the show is mindless.
The mission statement feels cribbed straight from Cher Horowitz’s classroom debate in “Clueless”: “Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.”
“The Following” could get away with pushing the envelope if the writing and the characters were sturdy enough to support the attempt. But after strong introductions in the pilot, Bacon’s FBI Agent devolves into one of the most comically inept investigators on television, Purefoy’s charismatic killer becomes less and less interesting and Zea receives distressingly little to do beyond feeling tormented and terrorized.
Shawn Ashmore and Annie Parisse (who arrives in episode two) have standard police drama roles as, respectively, the eager young partner and gruff superior, while the triangle that develops between mysterious characters played by Valorie Curry, Adam Canto and Nico Tortorella is one of the cheesiest elements of the series.
There’s also a lingering question as to how “The Following” could keep up its hunt-down-the-serial-killer storyline over multiple seasons. The best bet would be for the show to do a “24”-style reset every season and keep Bacon, possibly Zea and a few supporting cast members in service of a fresh investigation.