‘The Fol­low­ing’ is overly bloody and ill-timed

Tal­ented cast aside, Fox crime thriller’s re­lent­less bru­tal­ity goes too far.

Austin American-Statesman - - TV TONIGHT - By Fra­zier Moore

NEW YORK — I got a look at the first episode of “The Fol­low­ing,” Fox’s up­com­ing crime thriller, a few weeks ago. Its level of graphic vi­o­lence left me dis­gusted and dis­mayed. But with plenty of time to spare be­fore its Jan. 21 pre­miere, I set it aside, re­solv­ing to give the show an­other chance while won­der­ing if I was just hav­ing a bad day.

More of “The Fol­low­ing” ar­rived from Fox on Dec. 14, a really bad day. But I made time to watch those ad­di­tional three episodes dur­ing the week­end, be­tween heartbroken stretches view­ing cov­er­age of the shoot­ings in Con­necti­cut.

Yes, I was hy­per-sen­si­tized to the sense­less re­al­life vi­o­lence and blood­lust plagu­ing this coun­try as I screened the se­ries’ dra­ma­tized sav­agery.

But my re­ac­tion to “The Fol­low­ing” was no more pro­nounced than weeks ear­lier. My opin­ion was the same: “The Fol­low­ing” is a show­case for gra­tu­itous car­nage and cru­elty that might best be de­scribed as porno­graphic.

Of course, maybe porn is the sweet spot for any broad­cast net­work strug­gling to launch a se­ries that will be no­ticed in an ever-more-crowded me­dia mar­ket­place. No doubt about it, “The Fol­low­ing” will be hard to over­look.

To be fair, there’s much to like about the show. It has a fine cast, in par­tic­u­lar An­nie Parisse (“Law & Or­der”) , Natalie Zea (“Jus­ti­fied”) and James Pure­foy (“Rome”). And who doesn’t love Kevin Ba­con, mak­ing his en­try into se­ries tele­vi­sion? Plus, it was cre­ated by Kevin Wil­liamson, known for the hor­ror films “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Sum­mer” and the TV se­ries “The Vam­pire Di­aries,” but also for “Daw­son’s Creek.”

Never mind all that. (Alert: spoil­ers ahead.)

The premise is a rick­ety con­trivance. Ba­con plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent pulled out of re­tire­ment to track down a se­rial killer he nabbed years be­fore but who es­capes from prison in the gory open­ing scene.

Joe Car­roll (Pure­foy) was a charis­matic English pro­fes­sor and nov­el­ist with a taste for Edgar Allen Poe and grisly per­for­mance art (his spe­cialty is stab­bing deaths and the re­moval of his vic­tims’ eyes). He was con­victed a decade ago for the mur­der of 14 young women at the univer­sity where he taught.

Lit­tle is left to the imag­i­na­tion on “The Fol­low­ing,” which fetishizes butch­ery al­most as much as its arch-vil­lain.

But the bulk of the bru­tal­ity is del­e­gated by Car­roll (who is back in jail by the end of the pre­miere) to a le­gion of psy­cho-dis­ci­ples — that is, his Fol­low­ing. Th­ese ghastly Santa’s Helpers in­fil­trate the world, poised to do their master’s mur­der­ous bid­ding. (Item: One of his re­cruits slaugh­ters the res­i­dents of a girls’ dorm while mas­querad­ing as a se­cu­rity guard.)

So Hardy is roused from the drunken funk he sank into when the case was closed a decade be­fore, to re­sume bat­tle with this di­a­bol­i­cal foe. And Car­roll seems in­tent on tar­get­ing in­di­vid­u­als whose deaths will be es­pe­cially trau­matic for Hardy. Th­ese in­no­cents in­clude Car­roll’s ex-wife, Claire (Zea), with whom Hardy fell in love while chas­ing Car­roll be­fore, trig­ger­ing rage in the cuck­olded hus­band.

I don’t au­to­mat­i­cally con­demn TV vi­o­lence. Se­ries like “Break­ing Bad,” “The Walking Dead” and stom­achchurn­ing “Dex­ter” reg­u­larly bust taboos. But they put vi­o­lence in the ser­vice of a larger sto­ry­telling mis­sion, not just gory sen­sa­tion. That’s how it should be. A se­ries ought to earn the cre­ative li­cense to go ex­treme. It ought to jus­tify its ex­cesses with even big­ger mean­ing. “The Fol­low­ing” demon­strates no such re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Its sched­uled pre­miere is a month from now. So if the mas­sacre at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School has made some view­ers queasy about vi­o­lence on TV, they’ve got a whole month to get over it. Some­times mem­o­ries are short-lived.

To me, “The Fol­low­ing” looms as the wrong show at the wrong time, a red flag be­ing waved at a sor­row­ful na­tion. But it isn’t just a mat­ter of too much too soon. I think any time would be too soon for this kind of show.

Kevin Ba­con is re­ac­ti­vated FBI agent Ryan Hardy in “The Fol­low­ing.” MichAel lAvine / fox

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