If you set aside the crassest sitcoms aired—fetidly aired—on CBS, the creepiest show on a network’s schedule at any given moment is probably a Fox investigative drama. The blood-dripped surfaces of the CSI: and Law & Order franchises look like mass-produced splatter-paint silkscreens as compared to an innovative freak-out like Fringe or an even a conceptually ambitious failure like the paranormal Alcatraz. It is often the network’s button-pushing ambition to get horror-flick cinematic with its grotesquerie and metaphysical with its criminal psychopaths. The latest manifestation of the channel’s X-Files complex is The Following (Mondays at 9 p.m. ET), starring Kevin Bacon as the cop, James Purefoy as the killer, and Edgar Allan Poe as the patron saint of the Satanic church of American Gothic.
Bacon’s Ryan Hardy is a former FBI agent living alone in Brooklyn. One morning he gets a call to come back as a consultant and pursue a serial killer who has just escaped death row. Preparing for his first day back, he bows his head in the shower and water rolls down his clenched face. Packing lunch, he pours bottom-shelf vodka into a plastic water bottle. “I read your file,” another agent snips at the Bureau. “I know you don’t play well with others.” Ah, yes, he’s one of those, but while the line on those other brilliant-but-troubled types is that they “don’t play by the book,” Hardy most certainly does. It’s just that the book in question is the Norton Anthology of American Literature.
You see, Purefoy’s Joe Carroll is a former literature professor and the author of one best-selling novel, one that was initially “a commercial and critical flop.” The by-the-book understanding of Carroll’s case is that the novel’s failure excited his pathology, but a more sophisticated analysis reveals that he is a charismatic genius of cultivated taste, kind of like Hannibal Lecter, though with better hair and not a foodie. In the words of the FBI lad (Shawn Ashmore) who serves as Hardy’s sidekick, Watson, disciple, and enabler, Carroll “didn’t just eviscerate 14 female students. He was making art.” It was Hardy’s grasp of that sinister ambition that led him to capture Carroll in 2003 and put the villain behind bars.
Ten years pass, and then, in 2013, the pilot of The Following comes on and within 90 seconds Carroll has slaughtered four prison guards and trucked off to Norfolk, Virginia, to wrap up a bit of bloodletting he meant to take care of ages ago. Attending to unfinished business is a major theme of the series. Carroll, who specialized in Poe scholarship, had a particular attraction to The Lighthouse, the author’s incomplete final work. Also, it turns out that Hardy, after putting Carroll away, began specializing in making it with the criminal’s wife (Natalie Zea) — in ringing her bells, bells, bells, as it were.
Before the hour is over, Hardy recaptures Carroll and discovers (in the freaky Fox twist that gives the series its conceit and its title) that the imprisoned professor was using the death row broadband connection to build a serial-killing cult. One of the agents uses the phrase “social network” in connection with this endeavor. Let’s call it Fiendster? Tomblr? The puppet master has programmed lonely souls to do his ghoulish bidding—including snatching his son from his ex-wife and slaughtering random pretty young women. Carroll’s brainwashing process has a scholarly bent. In the pilot, a female Follower breathes Poe’s last words (“Lord, help my poor soul”) before fatally stabbing herself in the eye in homage to “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Hardy pieces together the whole cult-leader puzzle while pacing around the crime scene of a suburban garage; the murderer has used the victim’s blood to scrawl an adverb on the wall. “Nevermore!” he epiphanizes. “‘The Raven’! Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!”
This stuff I found weak and wearying, especially because The Following is quite enjoyable in many other aspects. Bacon gives an inward performance, often seeming only about 80 percent awake after a night of indescribable dreams, and this muted quality matches nicely with the gleaming malice that Purefoy projects in their interrogation-room face-offs. The Following handles chronology cleverly, flashing back and sliding forward across the span of a decade in a way that heightens the suspense. The idea of everyday people being remotely controlled by a charmer with a computer is enjoyably paranoiac, with a fine cyberpunk edge to its blade, and the violence is nicely choreographed. Why, the scene in the third episode where a Follower sets fire to a reviewer who had panned Carroll’s book was so vivid that I am viscerally afraid to address the series’ further flaws, which include the flatness of Hardy’s lovey-dovey scenes with the former Mrs. Carroll and also the relationship-angst subplot cluttering the house where her child’s kidnappers are holed up.
There is a famous Thomas De Quincey essay on the theme of murder-as-art, and I have steeled myself for The Following to ham-handedly allude to it. When the show talks about crime literature, it’s quite dull, but when it shows instead of tells, it’s something to see. Series creator Kevin Williamson, who built the deconstructionist Scream series, touches a meta-narrative nerve with a speech where Carroll cackles to Hardy that, like it or not, the two are collaborating on the grand murder spree he has set in motion—“our masterpiece.” In fiction, the cop is the always the co-author of the killer, in some sense, in the back of the spectator’s mind, where he conspires with the creator to play out an antisocial fantasy. The Following isn’t just an investigative procedural. Williamson is making self-aware sadism into entertainment, merely this and nothing more.