Imagine that Charles Manson, instead of recruiting his family of killers one at a time on visits to a deserted Death Valley ranch, had the vast reach of the Internet at his command. That’s the harrowing premise of The Following, a new Fox thriller way too unsettling to watch in the dark and so intense that it’ll shatter the fillings in your teeth.
Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (the carnal but not so bright Mark Antony of HBO’s Rome) star as Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll, respectively, the adversaries in this game of homicidal chess. Hardy, a wasted ex-FBI agent spending his retirement pickling himself in vodka, is summoned back to duty when Carroll, the serial killer he captured at the cost of most of his sanity (and nearly his life), escapes from prison a few weeks before his scheduled execution.
Their hatred for one another is as primal as it is bloody. Hardy is physically crippled by the knife Carroll plunged into his heart and emotionally devastated by the 14 mutilated corpses that piled up during his long, plodding pursuit.
Carroll, a brilliant American lit professor whose broody interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe turned literal, with devastating results for his female students, is furious that he was undone by a lesser intellect — “a flawed, broken man, searching for redemption,” as he sneeringly, though not inaccurately, refers to Hardy. More galling yet: After Carroll went to prison, Hardy bedded his wife.
With Carroll on the loose again, the two quickly fall into their old pattern. Carroll’s murders are grisly, spectacular and underlined with taunting messages for Carroll, whose growing fits of anger have led left his FBI colleagues believing he’s too unhinged to carry a gun.
And as the bodies pile up from coast to coast, Hardy comes to a horrifying realization: Not only have Carroll’s cockeyed lit-crit profundities about insanity as art and the beauty of death won him a following of literary groupies, while in prison he’s used bootleg Internet to leverage them into a homicidal cult. “You’ve got to toughen up, Ryan,” jeers Carroll. “You’re dealing with depraved minds. Sick and twisted.”
The Following was created by Kevin Williamson, once a wunderkind deconstructionist of adolescence ( Dawson’s Creek) and a slasher-film auteur who laced his gore with sly wit (the Scream films). There are moments in The Following when a mordant chuckle seems to echo fleetingly in the background, as Carroll’s starry-eyed millennial followers, post-literates who would never have read a Poe novel if somebody hadn’t showed them how to turn on their Kindles, solemnly profess to have discovered the meaning of life — or at least, the meaning of ending it — in the text.
More often, though, The Following produces not smiles but gasps. Though dazzlingly plotted and acted, the show is not easily watched. Its violence is sudden, shocking and sanguinary — and, in a world where every newscast seems to bring a report of another delusionary sorting out his mental issues with the exhibitionist slaughter of strangers, sickeningly familiar. Even The Following’s putative hero seems exhausted. “I work better in people’s pasts,” Hardy shrugs to a former lover. The most frightening thing about The Following is that it’s much too easy to think it’s our future.