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Once The Silence of the Lambs became a success, Hannibal Lector seemed to stand over the serial killer genre like an overprotective father. Few seemingly dared venture from his shadow, and culture turned towards serial killer hunters rather than charismatic serial killers themselves, as shows like Criminal Minds demonstrates. Suddenly, though, like a dam bursting, we get Hannibal and The Following, two shows that aren't afraid to balance their psychologist heroes with devilishly charming serial-killing antiheroes. They're almost not worth comparing—Hannibal is an arty take on pain and the origins of insanity, while The Following takes us inside an investigation that's turned ugly and only getting uglier. Striking a perfect balance between psychological exploration of its characters and pulse-pounding action, The Following: The Complete First Season is addictive TV at its finest.
Facts of the Case
Ten years ago, FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon, Footloose) took down serial killer Joe Carroll, a Poe scholar responsible for the grisly murder of fourteen young women in a gruesomely romantic way. The takedown was not without a price, though, as Hardy is now an alcoholic stuck with a defibrillator in his chest thanks to Carroll. Hardy, however, has to put that aside when Carroll orchestrates his escape from prison and Hardy is called in to consult with the FBI. What at first seems like a relatively pedestrian breakout is soon revealed to be a conspiracy by acolytes that Carroll has recruited on the internet. Though Hardy and his FBI companions are intent on stopping Carroll, they can't until they learn the true extent of The Following.
I didn't just bring up Hannibal because it's another 2013 serial killer TV show. No, I bring it up because of the contrast between the two shows despite similar origins. The first episode of The Following plays out much like the first book in Harris' Lector series: we have a damaged FBI agent (Ryan Hardy instead of Will Graham) forced to contend with a serial killer he thought definitively in his past (Joe Carroll instead of Hannibal Lector). It's a compelling idea for a story, and it's no surprise that Hannibal wants to lead up to it, while The Following wants to emulate it.
If Lector-worship were the only thing that The Following had going for it, though, it would be a sad little show indeed. Instead, without spoiling anything specific, by the end of the first episode we learn that Carroll's escape wasn't a simple case of bribing or threatening a guard. No, there's a shockingly vast conspiracy behind his escape, and has a plan that's been years in the making. That means he's had time to embed sleeper agents in key positions, and viewers have no idea who might secretly be on Carroll's side.
Basically, it's a recipe for 24 with a serial killer, as Hardy and his team try to match Carroll's moves. I don't want to give too much away, but Carroll has a wife and a kid, and keeping them safe creates a lot of the show's tension. Though the show plays out over more than one day, each episode bleeds directly into the next one, with Hardy getting increasingly ragged, as it seems that Carroll is always one step ahead. It's a concoction that's perfect for binge-watching as the various factions play out with the audience guessing who's going to turn and how Hardy will respond.
Beyond the well-paced unspooling of Carroll's plot, the show boasts a ton of excellent performances. Unlike Kiefer Sutherland's tendency on 24 to go a bit bombastic, Kevin Bacon is a model of restraint. For the lead cast member on a TV show, he has a shockingly small number of lines. Instead of giving him dialogue, the creators let his face and body carry the character. He's weary, he's determined, and when he does have to perk up, it's a welcome ray of sunshine from an otherwise cloudy performance. It's the kind of performance that will probably sway even those who don't normally like Kevin Bacon. He's not alone in giving a nuanced performance. Carroll's ex-wife is played by Natalie Zea, and she too is a picture of controlled fury and sadness and conflict. Again, I don't want to give away who is who, but the rest of the cast, especially those who end up on Carroll's side, are just as fantastic.
The show also gets an excellent DVD release. The show's 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers do a fine job showcasing the show's gritty feel. They're generally detailed, clean, and bright. A few low light scenes can get a bit noisy, but these are rare and still very watchable. The show's 5.1 audio track is even more impressive. Dialogue is always clean and clear from the front, and the surrounds get a lot of good use. Because of Hardy's condition, the show uses a lot of heartbeats and other rhythmic pulses that are subtle but easy to discern in this excellent mix.
Extras are surprisingly generous. We get a "Maximum Episode Mode" for the show's pilot, featuring commentary by the shows executive producers, including Se7en scribe Kevin Williams, along with "focus points" that reveal more specific aspects of the episode. Then we get a series of featurettes. One looks at Williamson's creation of the show, another looks at the psychology of Carroll's "cult," while the last handful look more specifically at aspects of the production. There are also a handful of deleted scenes spread across the discs. The season finale also features a commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps my biggest complaint about the show is the casting of James Purefoy. He's not bad, but he doesn't have the mysterious something that gives Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen that special aura, making them compelling killers. He's charming enough, and obviously charismatic and handsome, but he feels out of sync with the rest of the cast. It's not terrible, nor enough to make the show unwatchable, but I wish he was more convincing. Speaking of convincing, of course viewers are going to have to accept some silliness along the way. From Hardy being a crack shot despite drinking and years away from his job, to some truly boneheaded moves in the face of a criminal mastermind, the show definitely dances over the line of credibility at points. I'm betting most viewers will be hooked along for the ride despite these lapses, but if you're a stickler for that kind of thing steer clear.
Kevin Williamson, writer of Scream and Se7en, knows serial killers, and The Following is the product of that familiarity. It's a tight show that gives viewers a great ride full of tension and surprise. Though it'll be hard for subsequent seasons to hit the highs of this one, The Following is worth picking up for any fans of pulse-pounding television.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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