If you are sensitive to bloody images of horrible murder, you might not want to watch the new serial killer drama "The Following" (8 p.m. CT Jan. 21, Fox; 3 stars out of 4). If you like to be scared to the point of watching through interlocked fingers, then tune in.
The series, created by "Scream" writer Kevin Williamson, is a thrill ride in the style of "Silence of the Lambs," if not quite at that film's level. It's a scary look into the minds of a damaged former FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) and a charismatic killer (James Purefoy).
Bacon's Ryan Hardy is a loner, an aspiring alcoholic with a pacemaker who exists on vodka and regret. His life was ruined years earlier after he captured Joe Carroll (Purefoy), a college professor and failed novelist who slaughtered 14 women and cut out their eyes in homage to his literary hero, Edgar Allen Poe.
As the series begins, the FBI calls up Hardy when Carroll escapes from prison to kill a potential victim who got away. Carroll's plan also involves Hardy, whom the killer casts in a sick "novel" that involves a cult of followers assembled via the Internet while he was in prison.
The relationship between Hardy and Carroll fuels the story, and Bacon and Purefoy have amazing chemistry. Their scenes together are riveting, as Carroll sets up his deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Hardy.
Bacon tackles a tough assignment well; Hardy is all torment, sadness and doubt, but because he cares so much, we care about him. Purefoy portrays Carroll as incredibly smart and self-assured with a charisma that makes you believe he could convince his acolytes to do his bidding. He's truly chilling in the role.
Their performances--and scenes that focus on Carroll's killer minions that I won't talk about lest I spoil things for readers--are the strongest parts of the series and overshadow the weaknesses. Those include numerous plot holes and some sketchy logic, plus Williamson's annoying habit of beating us over the head with the Poe references.
Williamson also relies too heavily at times on the slasher film tropes he mocked in "Scream," which makes some meant-to-be-scary scenes predictable. When Carroll's ex-wife (Natalie Zea) looks into a mirror for no good reason, it's obvious that when she looks again, a killer will be there. And guess what? He is!
With that in mind, I'm interested to see if Williamson can keep the shocks coming. In a show where anyone on screen could be a Carroll serial killer, how long will it take before we're not surprised that someone is?
Getting back to the show's other shocking element, I have to talk about the violence that has garnered so much attention. Recent national tragedies have made it fashionable for critics to suddenly loathe violence on TV, although I don't recall many braying about the violence in such critics' darlings as "Sons of Anarchy," "Dexter" or a handful of other shows.
I admit there's a good amount of violence in "The Following," but that's not what sticks in my head after viewing the first four episodes. And I'm the guy who passed out during graphic scenes in movies such as "Scream 2" and "Se7en," and once while watching "The Walking Dead."
I'm still thinking about the suspenseful moments that had me on the edge of the couch, waiting to be scared again and again--exactly what Williamson and his actors had in mind.
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