Keep your wits about you, lest you mistake Fox’s new serial killer drama “The Following” for a good television show.
Despite its dour atmospherics and some attempts at higher-caliber acting from Kevin Bacon and a large ensemble cast, “The Following” is a trite, gratuitously violent exercise in still more stylishly imagined American horror stories. It is filled with melodramatic sleuthing that you’ve seen over and over. Enough is enough, isn’t it?
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.
Imagine the Manson family after a shopping trip to Urban Outfitters. The nanny (Valorie Curry) who works for Joe’s ex-wife may seem like an innocent gamin, but as Joe’s Squeaky Fromme, she’s a serial killer and kidnapper. And those nice gay neighbors, Will and Billy (Nico Tortorella and Adan Canto)? They, too, are serial killers and apparently not gay. (Or are they bi?) The guy posing as a cop? Serial killer! The street performer in the Poe mask? Serial killer!
When Joe allows the FBI to recapture him, it’s soon clear to Ryan that he intends to let his followers do all the dirty work from now on, and boy, do they: One paints her body in quotes from “The Raven” and then disrobes and stabs her eye out in the FBI’s lobby; one goes on a stabbing binge in a sorority house; another meets a woman in a liquor store and then beats her senseless so that he can take her back to a safe house for some torture. “The Following’s” followers adhere to Joe’s penchant (and, it seems, an old Pixies song) for slicing up eyeballs as a poetic tribute to Edgar.
Back in the questioning room, Bacon and Purefoy (better remembered as Mark Antony in HBO’s “Rome”) engage in awful banter written in the style of, but several notches down from, the fava bean exchanges between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Watching these scenes, I felt a keen sense of miscasting: Bacon should have been the serial killer, and Purefoy would have been better as the alcoholic cop.
Even that wouldn’t improve things much. “The Following” takes its cues from hackneyed, Lecter-esque twists and turns that long ago ceased to twist or turn. Its set pieces — abandoned safe houses, horrific attic workshops — look too much like installations by depressed art students, with Poe quotes scrawled on walls. “Nevermore! ‘The Raven!’ ” Ryan shouts to his colleagues, with Dan Brown exclamation points. “Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!”
If I didn’t know better (and I’m not saying I do), it would seem that “The Following” is asking us to root for the cult leader and his killers instead of the flawed good guys. Aside from Bacon and the FBI’s cult specialist (Annie Parisse), the feds are made to seem like Keystone Cops; rather than bump noggins and suffer tweety-bird concussions, they too get their throats slit, adding up to a disproportionate — and, frankly, disrespectful — number of law enforcement officers seen bleeding out on the floor.
So is this the show that pushed me over some grisly limit? Have I finally lost an ability to shrug at violence? Am I, like Bacon’s character, hurling chairs in grand gestures of frustration? If so, why do I still enjoy “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland?” Why was “Django Unchained” a highlight of my Christmas vacation?
Then I realized: “The Following’s” fundamental problem is neither its gore nor its brutality; it’s the display of arrogance. Tangled up in easily avoidable clichés of the genre, this is a show that is entirely too pleased with itself and its pretentious concept. It’s not that we’ve become numb. It’s that we’ve become dulled.
(one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox.