After months of hype, The Following finally premiered last night on Fox and, for the most part, the first episode did not disappoint. Created by Kevin Williamson, the brainchild behind the Scream movie franchise as well as The Vampire Diaries, The Following paints a portrait of a serial killer so intelligent and psychopathic that the cat-and-mouse game he initiates in the pilot will be enough to carry an audience through at least the first season.
Our killer is Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a former English professor who is an expert in Gothic literature, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Carroll spent his off-hours murdering and disfiguring his female students (14 in all) as a kind of perverted tribute to Poe’s memory. After spending eight years in a maximum security prison, Carroll manages to escape, though he does so with very little difficulty (an accomplice, perhaps?)
Realizing that Carroll has escaped, the FBI calls the one man who can help them catch him again: Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the agent who caught Carroll the first time after 18 months of close study and surveillance. No longer an agent, Hardy collects disability from a stab wound courtesy of Carroll. He also seems to struggle with alcohol, filling a water bottle with vodka before joining the task force assembled in Virginia. While some agents treat him as a hero, like Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore), others treat him like he is the criminal. Either way, Hardy slides back into his old routine with little difficulty, picking up on clues others have missed and which were likely left just for him.
Hardy and the other agents are playing catch up with Carroll, realizing that he definitely has accomplices helping him. It’s almost impossible to figure out who they are considering Carroll had hundreds of visitors over the years, many of whom visited multiple times. Noticing that one particular prison guard was “watching” Carroll while he had access to the internet, the FBI swarms the guard’s house only to discover the workshop of a serial killer-in-training.
In the midst of all this, Hardy is also concerned with Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea), Carroll’s ex-wife and the mother of his son, and Sarah Fuller (Maggie Grace), Carroll’s final “work of art” who managed to survive after Hardy interrupted him. It was Sarah’s testimony that sent Carroll to prison. Both women are under 24-hour watch, though it’s beginning to become clear that with Carroll’s network of associates that hardly anyone can be trusted, be it a police officer, neighbor or babysitter.
The episode culminates with Carroll luring Hardy to a secluded lighthouse to witness the completion of what he started eight years ago. As Hardy jumps on him and begins to strangle him, Carroll croaks out that he surrenders, a move that was obviously premeditated and part of a larger plan. Back in prison, Carroll will only speak to Hardy, hinting that what has just happened is merely a prologue to something much greater. Together, he says, they will write a new book: Hardy the flawed protagonist, Carroll the alluring villain. As the episode closes, we see just how far Carroll’s influence has reached and the outline of his plan begins to take shape.
As far as pilots go, this is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The episode itself has many, many problems, but it sets up a story that could be quite exciting and easily sustainable. The dialogue is sometimes atrocious, with one agent telling Hardy, “I read your file. I know you don’t play well with others.” Lines like that occur more often than I’d like, but hopefully they’ll be excised as the series progresses. The premise is a little derivative, the villain being a mix of Hannibal Lecter and Gerard Butler from Law Abiding Citizen. It’s also tiring seeing a character being conjured because he or she is the only person who can catch the killer; Demolition Man was the last time this was used without being asinine.
However, Williamson and Co. throw a couple of interesting twists our way. Carroll’s helpers could be anyone so it’ll be interesting to watch as characters we come to trust turn out to be part of his web of killers (though this has also been used extensively on Homeland, except with terrorists). Hardy and Claire clearly have a romantic past and Carroll knows it. This is a bit rudimentary in terms of storytelling, but hopefully it will just keep the plot options open and free from repetition.
Overall, I think it was a great premiere and seriously look forward to next week’s episode.