Understandably, some reporters and critics at the recent winter TV press tour in Pasadena, Calif., raised this issue with executives and producers as the networks unveiled a slew of new crime dramas featuring more throat-slittings, rapes and other vicious imagery: Is it time to connect our daily diet of savage crime to, say, recent events in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.?
“The Following,” which premieres Monday night, was especially ripe for such a grilling because of its remarkably callous body count. The people behind “The Following,” including its creator Kevin Williamson (who gave us the “Scream” movies, CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” and, yes, “Dawson’s Creek”), insist that this has nothing to with that.
Which is pretty much what they always say, and in theory I agree. The murders we see in “The Following” are committed by knife, mainly, and also flame, because they are zealously carried out by a cult of gothic romanticists who’ve read too much into their well-thumbed volumes of Edgar Allan Poe. To bring “The Following” into the violence debate (parallel to a gun debate) is to launch a murky conversation that is absent useful data, relying instead on gut instinct. Our wish for safer communities cannot be achieved merely by ordering sunnier programming or switching the darn thing off.
But I also know that our culture has a troubling addiction to murder stories. As U.S. homicide rates have declined (and declined some more), our appetite for fancifully gross killing sprees just keeps growing. That is made clear in TV ratings, where crime procedurals are the only scripted shows that stand a chance of beating NFL games and talent competitions. Not so long ago, before the popularity of e-readers eliminated the book jacket, you could visit a beach or board an airplane and notice that consumers overwhelmingly prefer novels about proficient killers and the unorthodox detectives who hunt them.
“The Following,” one could argue, is just giving the people what they want: Killers killing and detectives detecting.
Set all over Virginia (which is scary enough), the show is about a retired federal agent, Ryan Hardy (Bacon), who is called back to duty when his nemesis, a serial killer and former English professor named Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), eviscerates several prison guards and escapes. Ryan, who copes by taking swigs of pure vodka from a water bottle, correctly deduces that Joe will go after the victim he once maimed but didn’t get a chance to kill (because Ryan stopped him).
To broaden his reach, Joe has recruited a stable of acolytes — followers who have read his terrible novel or swooned in his college lectures, and then visited him in prison for years. They each took on new identities so that, when the time came, they’d be ready to strike.