Press Tour: ‘The Following’ panel kisses, but doesn’t tell

Kevin Williamson knows more than a little about pop culture analysis. His “Scream” movies were loving deconstructions of the tropes of slasher movies, and other Williamson works like “Dawson’s Creek” and the first “I Know What You Did Last Summer” movie featured plenty of meta commentary about the nature of the stories being told.

His new FOX serial killer drama “The Following,” though, is played entirely straight. And when Williamson joined star Kevin Bacon and the rest of the show’s cast at press tour, he was only a bit reflective of where the show fits into the long tradition of serial killers in pop culture, and not at all about what the show has to say about the many violent acts its characters commit (other than that they’re horrific), and what place violent entertainment has in a post-Columbine, post-Aurora, post-Newtown world.

Either Williamson hasn’t considered the subjects very much, or he simply wasn’t adequately briefed by FOX PR (who traditionally provide lists of expected questions to all press tour panelists). Whatever the reason, he didn’t have an answer ready for the many questions about the show’s violent content – it stars Bacon as an ex-FBI agent brought out of retirement to chase the disciples of a charismatic serial killer (James Purefoy) he caught years earlier – and what exactly it means.

“With regards to the violence…. I don’t know,” he said uncomfortably after a question on whether a show this graphic should be airing at 9 p.m. on a broadcast network. He acknowledged, “There’s some moments that are squeamish, it’s not for the faint of heart… But it’s not the sum of the show.”

Asked about the Newtown shootings, he said he’s still haunted by thoughts of that incident, and the one in Aurora, but tried to distance his show from them.

“It reaches a moment where that just gets too real,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons it so affects me: it’s so real, and I’m writing fiction.”

He did say that the show was inspired in part on some research he did into Gainesville serial killer Danny Rolling while he was writing “Scream,” and that “what happened at Columbine, in a lot of ways, sort of inspired some of this, in a weird way,” in the way that the show deals with the “emptiness” in the hearts of some people driven to kill, but quickly stopped himself  to remind us, “It’s meant to be a work of fiction.”

He didn’t have an answer to a question about whether the show was making any kind of point about the specific kinds of baroque violence are used on the show. And when asked about how the writing staff thinks up these particular acts, he said, “We don’t just sit around and think of ways to kill people. I’m sitting around and thinking of drama.”

In terms of the enduring popularity of fictional serial killers, Williamson did acknowledge, “Clearly, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ inspired me. I was the guy who saw the movie, who read the book in a day, then read it the next day. I was completely inspired by that book. It was a huge inspiration, the movie was amazing, I thought it was a very well crafted piece of work. When I was growing up, I always watched the scary stuff.” He said that what might differentiate “The Following” from all the other children of Hannibal Lecter is that “This is sort of an escalation. It’s a big concept,” because the Purefoy character is influencing an entire generation of killers.

I’ll be writing more about “The Following” before it debuts on January 21 – in the Monday at 9 p.m. timeslot that used to belong to “24,” which Williamson cited as his favorite TV show ever – but I will say that my biggest concern about it isn’t that it’s so graphic, but that it seems to be violence for its own sake, rather than having anything to say about what it means, whether it’s as a “Scream”-esque analysis of serial killer fiction or as a discussion of the emotional causes and toll of violence in general. (Natalie Zea, who plays Purefoy’s ex-wife, even said of the acting challenges of the show, “I’ve been really fortunate to not have a lot of excess baggage to have to place under the surface, because everything that’s going on is so crazy and awful and heartbreaking and horrific.”)

And while sometimes press tour panels do a good job of suggesting there’s more thought to the work than what’s apparent on screen in the early episodes, this was one that largely confirmed my fears.

On the plus side, Bacon did kiss Purefoy (on the cheek) after a critic noted the chemistry between the two of them. So there was entertainment, if not insight.