Kevin Williamson has forgotten more about horror than I’ll ever learn. His scripts for both the big screen (“I Know What You Did Last Summer”) and small (“Dawson’s Creek”) are overflowing with a love of popular culture and horror stories in particular. His movie debut, 1996’s “Scream,” breathed new life into a thoroughly played-out genre by making a slasher movie where all the characters were aware they were in a slasher movie, and of the rules that govern such a story.
His new FOX drama “The Following” (it debuts Monday night at 9) is informed by Williamson’s devotion to another kind of horror story: tales of charismatic, omniscient serial killers, particularly as popularized by “Silence of the Lambs” and the other Hannibal Lecter films. But here, the tone is deadly serious throughout. It’s a series riddled with clichés, but without anyone to point them out along the way.
Kevin Bacon, following his wife Kyra Sedgwick’s path to television, plays Ryan Hardy, an FBI agent forced into retirement after being wounded apprehending Joe Carroll (James Purefoy from “Rome”), a literature professor turned serial killer who murdered young women as a salute to the works of Edgar Allen Poe. In the series’ opening moments, Carroll escapes from prison, leaving another trail of blood in his wake, and Hardy is awoken from an alcoholic slumber to help catch him — and, it turns out, the many followers he inspired and trained during his incarceration.
So it’s basically Hannibal Lecter as cult leader, only if Lecter were somehow more pretentious and less charming (the downgrade from Anthony Hopkins to Purefoy), constantly dropping Poe references in an attempt to seem deeper and more meaningful than he actually is — or than “The Following” actually is.
Williamson and his writers attempt to examine the motivations behind Carroll and his acolytes, but they usually amount to some combination of name-dropping and psycho-babble, like this absolute hum-dinger of a monologue from the second episode, delivered by Annie Parisse as one of Hardy’s new FBI pals:
“Carroll’s using Poe’s work as a religion. He’s speaking to people through Gothic Romanticism. There’s a pathology to today’s Internet techno-bred minds. He’s created a vacancy in our humanity. Find the ones with additional disorders, jackpot. Enter a handsome, charismatic man who can touch them, make them feel their lives for the first time. He conditions them. The only way to truly live is to kill.”
Parisse plays it self-deprecating — she concludes the speech by saying, “Or some crap like that” — but it’s clearly meant to be a brilliant insight into this man, and the state of a society that breeds others like him. But it’s just gibberish, there to try to justify the quantity and quality of baroque acts of violence without really saying anything about why we’re really fascinated by characters like Lecter, John Doe from “Se7en” or Dexter Morgan. “The Following” plays at examining both the pathology of these killers and the tropes of their stories — Carroll announces that he’s writing a new book based on these events, and begins breaking Hardy and others down into character types — but mainly it seems to take delight in depicting the extremes to which Carroll and his followers will go.
I’m not saying that Williamson is obligated to turn every horror story he tells into a deconstruction of the genre, nor a PhD thesis about the pathology of serial killers and those who love them (with or without “today’s Internet techno-bred minds”). But the hollowness of “The Following” means that the only thing there is to focus on is the actual storytelling, and it’s lacking.
At the Television Critics Association press tour earlier this month, Williamson referred to “24” (which used to air in this timeslot) as “my favorite show of all time,” and you can definitely see some of that show’s DNA here — specifically in the way that other than Ryan Hardy himself, virtually any character at any time can be revealed to be a mole trained by Joe Carroll. And the problem is that when anyone can be a surprising villain, then no one actually is. Seemingly trustworthy figures pop out of the shadows so often brandishing a gun, knife or nastier death implement (Carroll’s signature is putting out his young female victim’s eyes with an icepick) that it becomes wearying — if not comical — after a few episodes.
The weary gravity of Bacon’s performance holds things together to a point, and the one deviation from cliché that the series takes is in making Hardy a man whose problem is identifying too deeply with the victims — “The kill makes it personal, you unravel,” he’s told — when the usual gimmick is that the profiler learns to think too much like the killer. Bacon alone kept me watching at least an episode longer than I otherwise might have.
We’re in the middle of a boom of serial killer-driven television. “Criminal Minds” shows no sign of going away anytime soon. “Dexter” is more popular than ever. NBC has an actual Hannibal Lecter series coming up later this year, and A&E is debuting “Bates Motel,” a “Psycho” prequel series about the young Norman Bates, in March. There’s an unending fascination for this kind of show — or related gore like AMC’s wildly popular “The Walking Dead” — and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if “The Following” were a big, bloody hit for FOX.
But success and quality don’t always neatly overlap, and “The Following” is a show that’s disturbing without actually being scary, and that approaches deep, dark subjects without having anything real to say about them. Williamson may have put thought into what this show is about, but what comes across on screen is an empty exercise in fetishizing the charismatic evil of serial killers.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org