February 8, 2013 by Jason Seligson
“Do you know that the FBI estimates that there are over 300,000 serial killers active in the U.S. on any given day?” This question—posed by the ringleader of a fictional cult of serial killers—is the driving idea behind Fox’s bold new thriller: The Following. Created by Kevin Williamson (Scream, The Vampire Diaries) and starring Kevin Bacon (Mystic River, X-Men: First Class), The Following puts a spin on the crime drama by uniting it with the one thing that has become a part of our daily lives: social media. It begs the horrifying thought that a group of serial killers could actually use social media to work together, creating a cult of sorts, a following. Halfway through its pilot, The Following proves itself to be one of the most suspenseful shows on network TV—with intense torture scenes and serial killer gore, it won’t attract everyone, but it is one of the most compelling shows of the season.
The pilot presents an array of complex characters, most notably the two leads, expertly played by Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. We first meet Bacon’s character, Ryan Hardy, as a washed-up alcoholic; several years earlier, Hardy was an FBI agent, responsible for the capture of serial killer James Carroll (Purefoy). The inciting incident of the pilot pulls a reluctant Hardy back into the fold when Carroll escapes from prison.
The strong lead cast also includes Natalie Zea (Justified) as Claire Matthews, Carroll’s ex-wife and the mother of his child, who also has a romantic past with Hardy; Shawn Ashmore as Mike Weston, an earnest rookie agent who reveres Hardy’s work; and finally, Annie Parisse as Debra Parker, an FBI agent who specializes in cult behavior, introduced in the second episode. Lost actress Maggie Grace also plays an important role in the pilot—her character, Dr. Sarah Fuller, is the only known person to have survived an attack by Carroll. When Carroll is released—determined to finish what he started—Fuller goes into protection, seeking comfort in her friends and loved ones. Back in 2003, Hardy saved her; now that Carroll is a threat again, he’s determined to ensure her safety once more.
So what exactly makes Carroll so intriguing? Carroll used to be an English literature professor; he worshipped the works of Romantic period authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and his personal favorite, Edgar Allen Poe. In the pilot, Carroll pays twisted homage to Poe’s works, The Raven and the Black Cat, forcing his victims to gouge out their eyes. As dark as that is, Hardy has a deep enough understanding of Carroll’s psychology to know that in his own mind, he’s just paying tribute; to starkly summarize: he’s just making art.
And Carroll’s newest plan will be his masterpiece—one that directly involves Hardy. “We know about the cult,” Hardy tells Carroll, confronting him at the end of the hour. “I’m not a big fan of that word; I like to think of them as friends,” he says. “So what’s my sequel about?” Hardy asks. “It’s going to be collaboration. We’re going to write this together.” Hardy is the protagonist in Carroll’s newest novel—one that he isn’t writing in a literal sense, but is playing out through his followers. The story about these two men alone is so rich that it could carry the entire piece; and while the evolving story of the cult of killers will be interesting to follow, the backbone of the show shines through right here.
What separates The Following from Law and Order, CSI, and other myriad crime procedurals on now is the genuine sense of terror the audience feels—that anybody could be connected to this web of murderers, and that the characters you like could go at any moment. In a promotional interview for Fox, Creator/Executive Producer Kevin Williamson said “I think if people give it a shot, they’ll get emotionally involved, I hope. I’m trying to infuse it with great characters, great drama, and great relationships all told under this umbrella of a thrill ride every week.”
Like any good thriller, The Following plays with the audience’s expectations, skillfully weaving strands of ambiguity into each and every face we meet. Ultimately, I think the difficult task this show (and really any drama with heavy serialized elements) is to live up to the promise of the pilot: to keep the surprises coming and to not let the audience get ahead of the show. Pilots are like appetizers—they’re only meant to whet your appetite for the main dish. Keeping the mystery along with the same gradual character development we’ve already seen will make for a stellar first season. It’s a tough balance for many shows, but I’m confident that The Following will find the right balance, and will continue to execute its vision in a way that is—to speak to Carroll’s mind—artfully done.