There’s something chilling about watching “The Following.” At first, I thought it was the blunt, graphic depictions of violence—several prison guards are eviscerated in the cold open, a woman stabs herself in the eye, and another woman has her eyes cut out. But as I watched the first four episodes of the series, which premiered Jan. 21 on Fox, I realized that it was unlike anything I’d ever seen, yet still eerily similar to everything.
“The Following” begins with serial killer Jim Carroll (James Purefoy, “Episodes”) breaking out of his maximum security prison. To help find him, the FBI calls in the man who caught him: Ryan Hardy (the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon), an FBI agent forced into retirement by Carroll’s knife. The first episode centers on Hardy working to find Carroll and keep him from finishing off the lone survivor of Carroll’s killing spree.
Throughout the episode and the series, the viewer is shown flashbacks to Hardy’s initial manhunt, when Carroll was a college professor who cut people’s eyes out on the side. Once Carroll is caught again, it comes to light that he has a cult-like group of followers who kill people for him. As the series progresses, they pose increasing threats to the people closest to Hardy—especially Carroll’s ex-wife, with whom Hardy was once involved.
The viewer also gets a glimpse of the goings-on with three of Carroll’s followers (I can’t say who without spoiling the show), who go around doing Carroll’s bidding, leaving a decent amount of blood in their wake as two of them realize that they’re both in love with the third. The events that unfold as the show progresses paint Hardy as tortured by past mistakes with an inability to save everyone who falls victim to Carroll and his cult.
As we learn more about Hardy’s character, one of the more interesting things about this show is revealed: Its ability to depart from crime show convention, while somehow sticking to tired character types.
On one hand, it gives a shocking depiction of serial killers and what makes them tick. On the other, at one point, Hardy throws a patio chair at a building in anguish—a somewhat melodramatic way to emphasize the “tortured law enforcement officer” trope that Bacon’s character embodies. Even more heavy-handed is the shot of a trash can full of empty vodka bottles when we first meet Hardy.
In attempting to avoid the formulaic feel of most crime shows, “The Following” does feature some solid twists. To a point, these are effective, but when pushed beyond their usefulness, the twists depart so far from convention as to be completely absurd. Take, for instance an attempt to kill Hardy by strapping a magnet to his chest that interferes with his pacemaker.
Of course, the show isn’t without its redeeming qualities. It’s rare that a show gives the viewer both sides of a manhunt—which is startling in that the bad guys are eerily similar to the good guys and are almost relatable (until they almost murder someone just for existing).
Really, that might be the takeaway that “The Following” is aiming for—showing people that not all the monsters live under the bed, and you won’t see them until they walk up and stab you in the gut.