The aftermath of the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School is probably not the best time to start a new series about a serial killer with a murderous cult. “The Following,” which begins Monday on Fox, has already become a reference point in the debate about violence in entertainment.
Fox executives defend the show by saying that its depictions of homicide are no more gruesome than those on shows like “Criminal Minds,” “CSI” or “The Mentalist.” And while that is arguably true, it doesn’t really help the case. The difference lies in the way murder is presented.
“The Following,” which stars Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy, a burned-out former F.B.I agent, is one of the most disturbing procedural dramas on television, in its own way creepier than similar network shows and even cable series like “Dexter” or “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead.”
It’s hard to turn off and even harder to watch.
And it could be that precisely because it is so bleak and relentlessly scary, “The Following” offers a more salutary depiction of violence than do series that use humor to mitigate horror — and thereby trivialize it.
CBS has a formula for making crime dramas viewer-friendly. Most of its shows blunt the impact of mutilated corpses and revolting autopsy procedures with almost cartoonish comic relief, usually the banter of good-looking investigators or a wackily eccentric computer nerd who prattles while doing all the Internet legwork. Cable, which has to offer something different, inverts the formula, creating villains who are amusing or intriguingly self-aware even while their crimes are terrifying, be it the serial killer with a soul on “Dexter” (Showtime) or the high school teacher turned meth dealer on “Breaking Bad” (AMC).
Shows that traffic in the supernatural or fantasy have a built-in disclaimer. Hideous things happen on every episode of “The Walking Dead” (AMC) or “Game of Thrones” (HBO), but most viewers know that zombies don’t exist in real life, and that knights and priestesses are really found only in the Middle Ages or Middle-earth.
Serial killers may be more rare than television pretends, but they do exist, and every now and then a Ted Bundy emerges who almost fits the television phenotype of brilliant, charismatic psychopath.
In that sense “The Following” doesn’t offer an original villain, merely a variation on a familiar model. Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is a charming professor of literature and expert on Edgar Allan Poe who is also a serial killer so captivating that even from afar he can persuade his acolytes to kill strangers, or even stab themselves in the eye. His followers are all over, and some are embedded so innocuously into normal life as friends and neighbors that nobody would ever suspect they are carrying out a mission of ritual murder by proxy.
Horrible things happen in the pilot, and the only release from the intensity and suspense is during commercials.
“The Following” doesn’t blink and go cute like so many network dramas, but it also isn’t quite as anarchic as cable or movies.
Ryan is not a nonchalant bon vivant like the hero of “The Mentalist” or the investigators on “NCIS”; he is a washed-out, used-up, retired agent who drinks vodka out of a water bottle to get through the day.
And Carroll is not a villain whom viewers are likely to love à la Al Swearengen of “Deadwood” or Hannibal Lecter. Carroll can be charming when playing the role of professor, but behind bars he isn’t wittily disarming; he is a thuggish bully with soulless eyes.
Carroll’s obsession with Poe gets a little silly, especially when characters use literary exegesis to decipher clues. (The raven, one says, symbolizes “the finality of death.”) But there is nothing funny or arch about “The Following.”
Like so many prime-time shows it traffics in gruesome depictions of death, but it also takes its violence seriously. And that’s not such a bad thing these days.
Fox, Monday nights at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Produced by Warner Brothers Television, Outerbanks Entertainment and Bonanza Productions. Created and written by Kevin Williamson; directed by Marcos Siega; Mr. Williamson and Mr. Siega, executive producers.
WITH: Kevin Bacon (Ryan Hardy), James Purefoy (Joe Carroll), Natalie Zea (Claire Matthews), Annie Parisse (F.B.I. Specialist Debra Parker), Shawn Ashmore (Agent Mike Weston), Valorie Curry (Denise), Adan Canto (Billy Thomas), Nico Tortorella (Will Wilson) and Kyle Catlett (Joey Matthews).
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