TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tonight is the premier of the Fox TV series "The Following" starring Kevin Bacon. It's his first TV series. Bacon plays a former FBI agent asked to help apprehend an escaped serial killer he once put behind bars. "The Following" is created by Kevin Williamson, who also created the "Scream" horror-movie franchise. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: One reason Kevin Bacon is coming to television is that his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, recently left it. Both of them have spent most of their careers in motion pictures, but once Kyra agreed to star in a cable TV drama called "The Closer," for TNT, it ended up lifting her to a new level of stardom and giving her the rewards of a steady job.
After seven years, she walked away from "The Closer," and television, last August - and, like a tag-team partner, Kevin dove right in, and accepted the lead in "The Following". Like "The Closer," its central character is someone who gets into the head of bad guys. But with "The Following," the structure is a little more focused and serialized. And the tone, and the content, is a lot more grim.
Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who once managed to catch a ruthless serial killed named Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy. But that was eight years ago. Hardy barely escaped with his life, quit the bureau, and developed a drinking problem.
Yet when Carroll escapes from prison, the FBI asks Hardy for help, and Hardy agrees to attend a briefing by a young agent named Mike Weston, played by Shawn Ashmore. Hardy is supposed to watch and learn but he can't help speaking up. During Weston's briefing, Hardy interrupts, and Weston knows enough about the case to recognize Hardy by sight.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FOLLOWING")
SHAWN ASHMORE: (as Mike) He then studied in the States where he married and became a professor of literature at Winslow University. Also budding novelist. In 2003, Carrol's first and only novel, "The Gothic Sea," was published. It would go on to become a bestseller, but in its initial printing it was a commercial and critical flop.
(as Mike) This triggered his piquerism - the act of stabbing, slicing flesh for arousal.
KEVIN BACON: (as Ryah) That's not accurate.
ASHMORE: (as Mike) I'm sorry - would you like to say something, sir? By all means, if I've got it wrong, please correct me. Ryan Hardy.
BACON: (as Ryan) Joe Carroll was obsessed with the romantic period. His lectures consisted of Thoreau, Emerson - in particular his hero, Edgar Allen Poe. And like Poe, he believed in the insanity of art, that it had to be felt. He didn't just eviscerate 14 female students. He was making art. He cut out his victims' eyes as a nod to his favorite works of Poe, the "Telltale Heart" and "The Black Cat."
(as Ryan) See, Poe believed that the eyes are our identity, windows to our soul. To classify him as a piquerist would be too simplistic.
BIANCULLI: For Bacon, this is a very good role, and he does very well with it. Ryan Hardy carries so much baggage, and is haunted by so many demons, he may as well be the reincarnation of Jack Bauer - or, going all the way back to "The Fugitive," of Richard Kimble.
And he's not just haunted by his past, he keeps remembering it. "The Following" has more flashbacks than "Lost," and that's really saying something. Flashbacks to the initial murder investigation, to the years since - and other characters go down memory lane, too. So the structure of "The Following" is complicated, and challenging, but it's very interesting.
So is the conceit that the killer is obsessed with the works of Edgar Allen Poe and, like Charles Manson, has a family of devoted followers willing to kill, or even die, if he just says the word. And he does. A lot. I've seen the first four hours of "The Following," and there's a lot to praise. As a new TV series, this mid-season entry certainly is better than anything served up last fall, and the acting, particularly, is first-rate.
Purefoy, who plays this show's version of Hannibal Lecter, cuts a strong figure - you may remember him as Mark Antony in HBO's "Rome." Ashmore, as the FBI agent whose briefing was interrupted by Hardy, is a dynamic foil for Bacon. And Natalie Zea, who plays the killer's ex-wife, is a key figure as well.
But here's a reaction I didn't expect. I'm a big fan of "Dexter," and "Homeland," so TV violence in itself doesn't throw me. But there's something about "The Following" that pushes the envelope, especially for broadcast television, in a way that's more than a little unsettling. Not only does it find ways to put children and young women into jeopardy at almost every opportunity, but it stages many scenes of torture and killing through the eyes of Joe Carroll's eager followers.
These scenes show these young people enjoying the act of stabbing, or setting on fire, or otherwise murdering someone, almost like a how-to primer. Yes, they're the villains - but the way these moments are acted, photographed and edited made me feel uneasy about the possible real-world consequences. The violence is overtly glamorized here.
Because the storyline of "The Following" is more like a novel, it can't be fully or fairly judged on the opening chapters alone. There are hints that the mystery may not play out as well as it starts - already, some of the moves by Carroll and his acolytes seem absurdly complicated, like Dr. Evil's sharks with lasers in the "Austin Powers" movies.
But some of the visuals here are so boldly attention-getting - you'll know them when you see them - the TV series begins with style. And with his brooding intensity, Kevin Bacon in "The Following," like Kiefer Sutherland in "24," can carry you a long way.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfrshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.