Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pilot Review: The Following

The Following (Mondays at 9:00 on Fox)

Fox has floundered in the ratings this year. The X Factor underperformed for the second year in a row, Glee tumbled on its new night following some major changes, and all of the new fall shows bombed. They went from first place to neck-and-neck for last place in the span of just a few months, so they're aching for a hit. The Following may be just what they need to get back on track.

From the writer of the Scream franchise, Kevin Williamson, comes the story of one of the most notorious serial killers America has ever seen: Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, Rome). He figures himself a modern-day Edgar Allen Poe, a lover of romanticism and the Gothic. Carroll was a college literature professor when he killed fourteen young women, gouging their eyes out and removing their hearts. Ten years later, he's about to be executed when he escapes from prison. Enter Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the former FBI agent who was nearly killed capturing Carroll all those years ago. He literally wrote the book on catching this guy, and though the event scarred him forever (literally and figuratively) he cannot rest knowing Carroll is out there looking to finish what he started: by going after the one who got away, Sarah (Maggie Grace, Lost). The problem this time around is that Carroll has help from the outside, a web of disciples and helpers who are not only aiding in his mission but training to carry on his work once he's gone.

The Following is the scariest show on television. Horror shows have become very popular in the past few years, led by record-breaking hits like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. But The Following is terrifying on a level those shows can't reach because of their subject matter. Whereas The Walking Dead is scary because it's about paranoia and plague and physical monstrosity, and American Horror Story is scary because of it plays on the basic human fears of "the other" and of death, The Following is scary because it's about the human psyche. Anyone we know could be Joe Carroll or one of his followers. There's no rhyme or reason to mass violence these days, as can be evidenced in the recent influx of shootings like those in Colorado and Connecticut. Some people are just mentally unsound; how they manipulate others, how they put on a charming exterior while seething inside are just some of the questions raised by Williamson's new show. It's about the nature and psychology of violence, making it a weirdly topical series. Is it too violent? No. Most of the violence occurs off-screen, and there's no more gore than on any given episode of Grey's Anatomy (probably less, actually). But The Following is unsettling because it hits a nerve in its audience; it's not about zombies or possessed nuns or ghosts... it's about disturbed people. And that can be a little too real at times.

However, it's not just that The Following is tackling a trope of the horror genre which has previously been unexplored on TV that makes it interesting. The caliber of the show is unmatched by broadcast standards. There's a reason Kevin Bacon, whom I maintain is one of the most underrated actors working today, chose Williamson's script to be his first regular series gig: it's smart. Like he did with the Scream movies, Williamson plays upon our expectations as an audience; in the films, he deconstructed the "rules" of horror movies, subverted them, and then ultimately subscribed to them. He's doing kind of the same thing here, but using the police procedural as his starting point. No one is safe in Williamson's version of the familiar cop show, and few are who we think they are. There are twists at every commercial break, ending with an unexpected jolt and the question of how far Carroll's influence stretches and who else will be revealed to be leading a double life. All of this is led by Bacon in a flawless performance as Hardy. He's damaged goods, only making it through the day by filling his water bottle with vodka, haunted by his memories of Carroll and the wasted life he led after catching the killer. He's perfectly world-weary yet determined. Purefoy is oddly jubilant as Carroll; he's such a commanding presence, and in his little screen time in the pilot we get the impression that it wouldn't be difficult for him to persuade impressionable minds to follow him to the ends of the Earth. He's all smiles and soft speech, a terrifying blend of charm and insidiousness. The ensemble cast is great all around, particularly Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) as a young agent who idolizes Hardy and Natalie Zea (Justified) as Carroll's ex-wife, who also shares a past with Hardy. Everyone is elevating the already-strong source material to soaring heights. Topped off by some slick, well-paced, even direction from Marcos Siega (The Vampire Diaries), The Following comes about as close to physical perfection as a pilot can get. It's an intense, taut, full-throttle thrill ride into the mind of a murderer and the dangers of media and lives lived online. It may be ill-timed with the political blitz against violence as entertainment, but it's damn good TV regardless.

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