Scream writer Kevin Williamson likes you to know that he knows the conventions of storytelling. That’s, at least, what I’ve taken from his constantly winking and nudging forays into horror, and that seems to be the agenda of The Following, the upcoming Fox series with an intriguing premise re: a serial killer creating disciples that is hampered by a writer writing awkwardly, painfully about another would-be writer (who’s also, in turn, obsessed and knowledgeable about another writer still). It’s complicated.
At the same time, there’s that premise that you just can’t get away from: a charismatic serial killer enlisting other serial killers across the country is the kind of dumb, high-concept stuff that can still get its hooks in you. Plus, the show is blessed with two proven hard-not-to-watch leads in Kevin Bacon as a tormented, hard-drinking former FBI agent and Rome’s James Puerfoy as the killer with a brain. So you can see I’m a little torn and a lot interested in where Williamson’s vision is headed.
The series opens with Purefoy’s Joe Carroll escaping from a maximum security prison after eight years’ incarceration for the stabbing murders of a series of young women. Carroll is a former college lit professor obsessed with the romantic legacy of Edgar Allan Poe and patterned his murder, methodology, and even his one and only novel after the inventor of horror fiction.
Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy is the Fed who tracked and finally caught Carroll, but not after being stabbed in the heart (which leaves him with an, ahem, “telltale” wound). Hardy’s spent the last eight years on the bottle and out of the public eye, as has Carroll’s last victim, college student and now nurse, Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace). Sarah’s got her own emotional and physical scars but thankfully she has a couple of kindly gay neighbors to keep an eye on her.
The problem is, Carroll has spent the last near-decade evangelizing, and as The Following get going, we learn the extent to which the smooth talker is able to recruit and train his disciples. Now part of this relies on us suspending our disbelief that in a maximum security prison, no one would be monitoring the Internet access of a known criminal genius.
Likewise, how much time/effort can Carroll and his followers put into the elaborate Poe visual references, and Riddler-like clues being left for the FBI and especially Hardy, who’s now drawn fully back in? The Following doesn’t demand that you to turn off your brain, but it does ask you to turn it down a notch.
Purefoy is one of those genius, plan for all eventualities killers in the Hannibal Lecter mode, but this show isn’t going for realizing. It’s concerned more with shock, horror, and surprise: who does Carroll control and when will they betray one of our heroes? His actions here are part of a loosely-defined master work that he was unable to finish during his last killing spree, and Williamson is hoping we’ll want to see what the whole thing looks like by the end.
The show has one of my pet peeves from writing characterizing geniuses, which is to essentially create these polymaths. Without a point of reference for how/why they know what they know, it often seems like characters in the vein of Carroll are simply pulling their methods and means out of thin air.
But I said I liked The Following and for all the “cheats” the series appears to have in its first episode, I’m very curious about where it goes next. How does Williamson plan to extend this out to a full season? What is Carroll up to? And what is the ultimate plan for his following? Plus, there’s something thrilling about a madman setting off other madmen (and women) like bombs.
We’ll find out when The Following premieres next year on Fox.