‘The Following,’ smarter than it looks
New Fox drama marshals all the usual devices to create suspense
January 18, 2013
Sometimes critics refer to a charming show as being “disarming.” Fox’s new serial-killer drama “The Following” is disarming in a different way.
The show throws up so many hackneyed plot and character elements into its premiere episode that most critics will be ready to unload on it with both barrels. And then the episode ends with a twist that will leave those critics at least temporarily at a loss for words.
What that twist does is give all of us viewers permission to enjoy the show for what it is: a slick, straight-ahead thriller that keeps us guessing even when we probably shouldn’t have to. People who can tolerate basic-cable levels of violence and gore will be hooked immediately.
Premiering Monday at 9, “The Following” stars Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy, a burned-out former FBI agent with a drinking problem who is called back as a consultant when Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), the brilliant, charismatic serial killer whom Hardy arrested in 2003, escapes from prison.
Like so many TV and movie serial killers, Carroll has a theme to his murders: A professor of literature at a Virginia university, as well as an unsuccessful novelist, he is inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. And just as Poe left an unfinished novel, Carroll seems to have unfinished business.
Hardy gradually realizes that Carroll is getting help from people he has managed to contact on the internet. Just how many people is unclear.
That’s one of the strengths of this show. Recently, too many high-concept TV dramas — for example, “The Killing” — have started off with premises that might be interesting for 13 episodes but would be stretched past the breaking point after two seasons. “The Following” could go on indefinitely.
And some dramas are built on central mysteries that are so complex and far-fetched that we start to suspect that even the creators have no idea how to unravel them. Viewers who have stuck by these shows to the usually bitter end have too often learned that those suspicions were true.
When “The Following” is mystifying, that’s deliberate. In the four episodes made available for review, all the plot threads either have led somewhere or seem likely to do so. The exposition is clear, and if the actors behave ambiguously, there’s a justification in the script.
The show uses liberal amounts of fake suspense, including people who sneak up on someone in the dark for no reason and the old “it was only a dream” switcheroo. When the script can’t come up with a way to jolt the audience, a sudden loud chord on the soundtrack suffices.
If all that makes the show sound hacky, its creator, Kevin Williamson, who broke out with the self-parodying slasher film “Scream,” would say, “So what?” Even picky viewers will likely find themselves saying the same thing at the end of the premiere episode. To elaborate further on this point would be a spoiler.
In the light of recent examples of real-life violence, however, viewers may find themselves feeling guilty about enjoying a show with such graphic depictions of murder and menace. The show raises the question of whether works of fiction can inspire the mentally ill to commit murder, but its topicality is clearly inadvertent.
At times, after the energy of the pilot dissipates, the focus on the inner lives of Carroll’s followers becomes suffocatingly creepy.
But when Bacon and Purefoy are onscreen, they re-establish the show’s equilibrium. Nailing the cliché roles of flawed cop and sociopathic mastermind, they remind us of what the show is really about.
Again, to state what that is would give away too much. Suffice it to say that “The Following” is smarter than it seems.
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