TV has never been afraid of serial killers. Most notably, Showtime’s “Dexter” and CBS’s “Criminal Minds” explore the inner workings of these flawed murderers. Dexter Morgan is America’s most beloved serial killer (if that sort of thing is even possible), and the cast of “Criminal Minds” repeatedly walks us through a day in the life of solving these types of crimes. What’s distinct about these two shows is that they openly take on the perspective of either the criminal or the detective — never both — with little room between the lines.
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FOX’s “The Following” takes aim at this middle ground, personifying both ex-FBI Agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon, “Mystic River”) and psychopathic serial killer Dr. Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, “Resident Evil”). The new dark drama focuses on English-professor-turned-murderer Carroll’s ability to create a network of followers from the confines of his prison cell using the Internet. Using these new pawns, he escapes from jail, setting alcoholic Hardy back on his trail.
What’s most interesting about the premise is the actual construction of Carroll’s followers, all of them ready to sacrifice their lives for his cause. There isn’t much time spent figuring out the how and why of their involvement, but the ambiguity is intriguing and will hopefully be explored in later episodes.
At a first glance, “The Following” is incredibly smart in throwing off viewers from guessing what comes next. Periphery characters are shown to be wholly replaceable, which is both a strength and a weakness: While it shows the truly ruthless attitude of Carroll, it also detracts from creating a set of accountable secondary characters. Those who populate Carroll and Hardy’s world seem to have their days numbered — but maybe that’s the underlying point. Yet, the ability to surprise the audience with both plot and character motives is no doubt the show’s greatest asset, and is one that is called upon time and time again.
The show is incredibly fast-paced and entertaining, moving through each storyline swiftly in order to set all of the pieces in motion. Bacon lives up to the hype of his first notable network television role, showing restraint in Hardy’s persistence. Purefoy easily embodies the cruel and calculating serial killer, making Carroll relatable enough to add dimension. Together, Bacon and Purefoy rightfully carry the show — their few scenes together are excitingly charged and intense.
Still, “The Following” feels incredibly one-dimensional; beyond the literal good-guy-bad-guy chase, there are not many other moving pieces. The characters — though made dynamic through the fantastic performances — don’t have much meat on their bones. There’s a backstory of the two men sharing a lover, but it doesn’t add much to Hardy’s determination or Carroll’s murderous ways.
The whole episode seems to be building toward one moment; one unaccomplished goal of Carroll’s before he was hauled off to the joint the first time. But that moment comes and goes within the hour, leaving the trajectory of the “The Following” somewhat unclear. The show itself has its moments, but none with such a distinct destination.
Overall, “The Following” is immensely gripping and well-acted; if nothing else, you should get excited for Kevin Bacon on your television every week.