It’s difficult to not get excited about a new TV show from Scream writer Kevin Williamson, especially when it’s a serial killer drama starring Kevin Bacon. The central conceit of The Following (a cult of budding serial killers taught to explore their potential by their online master) is gruesome enough to grab our interest, but the problem, at least with this episode, is that Williamson has to get us through about thirty minutes of brutally generic police procedural before we get there.
The pilot opens with James Purefoy’s genius serial killer/literature professor Joe Carroll slipping out a maximum security prison while the opening bars of Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams make their predictable appearance. The call is made to retired agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon), the man who caught and literally wrote the book on Carroll, but he’s now an alcoholic wreck with a pacemaker and scars both real and psychological. Can Hardy predict Carroll’s movements before he strikes again and can he save his last surviving victim?
If this is all sounding a bit generic, it definitely is. Take Hardy’s new team. X-Men‘s Shawn Ashmore is a geeky hero-worshipper, Jeananne Goossen (Alcatraz) is the icy hard-ass team leader, and Billy Brown (Dexter) wisecracks and waits patiently for a line. Hardy himself isn’t really given anything to distinguish him from the legions of broken G-men that have littered our screens apart from the fact that he’s played by Kevin Bacon, and is predictably most reminiscent of Red Dragon‘s Will Graham. We’re even told that he doesn’t play well with others.
Then there’s genius killer Joe’s modus operandi: he’s a Poe expert, meaning his crime scenes are littered with references to The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart. I know that having a cult full of HP Lovecraft obsessives would result in summoning Cthulhu rather than cutting women’s eyes out, but it would be nice if we could move past Poe at some point.
The episode is mostly split into two plotlines: Hardy’s hunt for Carroll and sole survivor Sarah Fuller (guest star Maggie Grace) attempting to go about her day. Both of these generally go pretty much exactly how you’d expect them to, with Williamson throwing a few curveballs in every now and then. A visitor to the police station with some poetic body art and an icepick certainly makes an impression. The flashback of Sarah finding Carroll in her house is an accomplished bit of suspense that recalls Carpenter’s Halloween. About halfway through the episode we’re given a big hint about Carroll’s plan when Hardy and the team storm the house of the guard who helped him to escape. Carroll’s been instructing him in how to become a serial killer, starting with step one: torturing dogs.
But these chilling moments are all too brief in what is mostly frustratingly plodding stuff. Bacon’s Hardy is too tortured to allow the actor any moments of light relief, and Purefoy’s villain is kept off-screen for the most part, leading to a rather glum first episode. It’s Justified‘s Natalie Zea who comes off best in this first episode as Carroll’s ex-wife and Hardy’s ex-girlfriend Claire Matthews, and her scenes with Bacon give him a brief respite from scowling. Maggie Grace also gives a good show, although the Taken star has been in jeopardy so many times now it must be second nature by this point.
By the time ‘Nevermore’ has been scrawled in blood across a garage and Hardy’s railing against his superior’s inability to do anything, The Following is beginning to feel like a lost cause. One half-decent twist is repeated at least three times to show how clever it is, which just makes it comic. However, Williamson plays his trump card in the last 15 minutes as Carroll finally lets Hardy in on his plot and Bacon and Purefoy finally get to sink their teeth into some Big Acting. Having had unrestricted internet access in prison, Carroll has been able to manipulate untold numbers of potential serial killers. To quote Randy from Scream, “EVERYONE’S A SUSPECT!” Well, in this episode it’s exactly who you think it will be, but there’s definite potential here. The series isn’t about stopping Carroll, it’s about stopping his minions. “I prefer to think of them as friends,” he grins.
There’s enough promise in the final few scenes to ensure we’ll keep watching The Following. We’re hoping the generic bulk of this episode was merely necessary filler to set up the larger plot, as Williamson’s surely too good a writer to simply deliver a procedural. Fans of Williamson’s The Vampire Diaries will tell you it got over a terrible pilot to become an entertaining guilty pleasure, and Bacon and Purefoy’s scenes together show that this could be a lot of fun but it needs to shed the procedural cliches, fast.