Kevin Bacon strides into “The Following” with a rumpled black suit, a pacemaker scar and a water bottle filled with Smirnoff.
Fox’s much-hyped psychological thriller begins Monday night with the escape of serial killer Joe Carroll from Virginia’s death row. Desperate for help, the feds turn to the guy who caught Carroll the first time around.
It’s fun to see Bacon on television, especially as former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, who breaks into private homes and breaks fingers in the interview room like a gaunt Harry Callahan. He’s the classic damaged ex-cop haunted by one horrific case, and his first day back on the job is just going to get worse.
To fill in the blanks of what forced Hardy out of the Bureau and into a seven-year hangover, episodes bounce around between the present and 2003, when Hardy began to suspect Carroll of slaying pretty literature students.
“The Following,” compelling and frustrating from its opening credits, sets viewers up for a season-long, blood-soaked rematch between an evil intellectual and his law-enforcement nemesis. Rather than go it alone, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy of “Rome”) has cultivated a band of helpers on the outside, and they’ve been waiting patiently after worming their way into strategic relationships and gaining trust.
“The Following” reveals its secrets at a deliberate pace, letting Carroll’s backup crew go off like car bombs across the country. Soon there are too many names to memorize, and the cops refer to them as “gay neighbors,” “prison guard” and “ice pick lady.”
As drunks seem to do, Hardy attracts an enabler in the form of Agent Weston (Shawn Ashmore), who’s only too happy to supply his role model with a validating theory or an Altoid. “So does the coffee act as an equalizer, then?” Weston asks a buzzed Hardy one morning. His boss, Agent Parker, tells him, “What you are going to do, Vodka Breath, is go back to that dumpy motel.”
Hardy doesn’t, of course — he darts off after leads like a greyhound after a squirrel. Because he’s always just one step behind Carroll’s followers, he’s always stumbling into ravaged bodies on the floor.
The only thing more prevalent than those pools of blood is the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. Carroll borrowed imagery from the 19th-century author 10 years ago, and his followers are getting ready to take turns with their own gory book reports. So they talk about Poe a lot.
So do the police and FBI analysts, going over and over the symbolism in Poe’s stories and poems about evil, madness and doomed women. Poe’s themes must be discussed and analyzed every 15 minutes so that we get it. Which we do. But in case we don’t, here are some scenes from a decade ago of Carroll teaching a seminar on Poe. We get it. Seriously.
Also tiresome is the time spent with three young, unstable acolytes, hiding out in a country house with a kidnapping victim. Revealing too much about them would spoil some good surprises, but between the dead eyes, creepy love triangle and Pilates abs, it’s like watching the Manson Family camp out on “One Tree Hill.”
Series creator and writer Kevin Williamson rendered razor-sharp horror satire in the “Scream” movies and relatable young-adult drama in “Dawson’s Creek.” And as those works did, “The Following” exploits a self-referential story-within-a-story device, with Carroll announcing to Hardy that they’ll be writing a book together (“You are my flawed hero.”). Purefoy is equal parts blasé and monstrous as Carroll, even more so in scenes of his initial killing spree.
Not so clear are the motivations of others. As usual, Williamson’s characters are low on survival instinct. Normal people, upon hearing that they are the targets of an escaped serial killer and his murderous, life-infiltrating cult, start checking out flights to Stockholm. In “The Following,” no one even checks into a hotel, asking us to take seriously what Williamson has consistently mocked in the past.
The biggest perpetrator of this shrug-and-see attitude is the killer’s ex-wife, Claire (Natalie Zea). She under-reacts to her horrific luck during flashbacks, too, wondering aloud whether it’s OK to celebrate her jailhouse divorce from Carroll, as if he’d just been writing bad checks instead of carving out eyeballs.
Speaking of which, “The Following” won’t leave most horror fans queasy, but don’t mistake it for “The Mentalist.” If arterial spray isn’t your thing, neither is “The Following.” Sometimes the violence is off screen, but the camera lingers on its sickening results. As cult members write their individual Poe-inspired “chapters,” the show will no doubt relish its gory mandate. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is probably on its way to an alternate ending.
Carroll himself is a classic Williamson villain, mocking the police and killing with a personal agenda, all while exhibiting zero characteristics of an actual serial murderer.
This area is another where the series may disappoint one audience it could have owned, the kind of true-crime devotees who pick apart references to real killers on “Criminal Minds.” Despite the crowd of behavioral scientists milling around, “The Following’s” crimes are presented without much modern context. Even when one of Carroll’s acolytes kills three college students in their sorority house, no one mentions Ted Bundy.
“The Following,” having upped the network gore ante, will probably be a ratings monster, despite falling short of the quality cable fare Bacon could have scored. Or the country may turn away, finally weary of watching women and children in danger through the cracks between their fingers.
As “The Following” moves into its fourth week, Hardy finally jumps into the battle of wits with both feet. But our hero’s mortality is never far from his thoughts, with only a pacemaker keeping him alive. Resting under the scar tissue left from the stab wound inflicted by Carroll a decade ago, its beating rhythm is Hardy’s own tell-tale heart.
WHERE TO WATCH
“The Following” premieres at 8 tonight on Fox.
Watch trailers and clips of “The Following” at KansasCity.com/Entertainment.