Dexter Morgan's had the territory staked out for years, but network television is finally getting into the game of serial killers. NBC's got its high-pedigree 'Hannibal' adaptation on its way later this year, but FOX has already beaten it to the punch: the network premieres its new, murderous series The Following tonight. It's an intense, chilling series that manages to defy expectations -- and it's definitely worth the watch.
There's a reason why serial killers have thrived in the realm of cable but not network TV: without a high level of violence (usually graphic) and an unrelenting dark tone, shows about psychopathic serial murderers just aren't effective -- and those aren't typically ingredients allowed on network TV. The Following appears to be the exception to this. Chalk it up to our increasingly desensitized times, perceived viewer demand, or both, but The Following is quite possibly the most intense show I've seen on network television. Violence and blood come in no short supply, and there's simply no room for levity amongst the moody lighting and dark hues. The camera might cut away when the knife flashes downward, but we're spared little else: in tonight's episode, for instance, we get a rather disturbing look at a corpse with its eyes cut out (a prominent plot point and the killers' modus operandi). It rarely feels gratuitous -- after all, this is a show about serial killers -- but you'll finish each episode feeling exhausted. If you're not looking for some white-knuckle intensity, though, you shouldn't be watching The Following.
The series follows former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (a solid but not particularly memorable Kevin Bacon) who is forced out of retirement by the escape of the serial killer he once helped to apprehend. Joseph Carroll (the always excellent James Purefoy), a former English professor, spent his time in prison amassing a following of like-minded murderers, impressionable young people who were once his students or simply fans of his single, critically decimated novel (that's a plot point, too). Hardy isn't in good standing with the FBI -- he has a history of bad decisions, like sleeping with Carroll's wife (Justified's Natalie Zea) -- and an interesting but underplayed aspect of the series is the fact that Hardy can't carry a gun. The dynamic between Hardy and Carroll is an interesting one, though it unashamedly borrows a handful of pages from the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. The Following might have already rendered NBC's Hannibal obsolete.
Despite some good characterization and solid plotting, though, there are some laughable aspects to the series. Take, for instance, the fact that Carroll is motivated largely by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, which is perhaps the most cliche literary reference the series could have made. The reliance on Poe also seems like a little bit of a cop out that keeps any psychoanalysis of Carroll at arm's length. That's forgivable, though, because watching him slowly mold his relatively innocent followers into killers (thanks to the magic of nonlinear storytelling) provides some of the show's more intriguing character moments. It's the reason to keep tuning back in week after week.
There's one final thing that's particularly important to note about The Following: it's not a procedural. The show's premise would easily lend itself to a killer-of-the-week format, but thankfully it looks like the series is going the more serialized route. With only fifteen episodes per season (as per Kevin Bacon's contract), The Following's storyline isn't at a risk of running out of creative steam or being stretched too thin. That alone should be a reason to watch -- the fact that it's a good series (potentially great, by network TV standards) only makes it more appealing.
The Following premieres tonight at 9/8c on FOX.