What if Hannibal Lecter had a Facebook fan page and an army of Twitter followers who he could mobilise at the stroke of a keyboard? That’s the question posed by the new gory psychological thriller The Following, which could easily have been subtitled Silence of the Lambs 2.0.
It’s an odd beast, this one. Clearly Fox were looking for the next Homeland here, but the premise laid out by Kevin Williamson – a man with credits as diverse as creating Dawson’s Creek and writing Scream – is potentially as ludicrous as it is intriguing.
There’s no denying this pilot episode rattles along at breakneck pace, establishing both the current day plot and the ten-year old back-story which intertwine the lives of serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and the man who captured him, former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon). There are horror elements galore too, albeit toned down for a network TV audience. Within two minutes, we discover that Carroll has bloodily killed five guards in escaping from prison, a month before his scheduled execution. And the episode continues to pepper the audience with horror movie shock-and-gore. Indeed, the programme delights in revelling knowingly in cliché, from the casting of a Brit as a serial killer and Carroll’s obsession with Edgar Allan Poe to the love triangle involving Carroll’s ex-wife Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea) and the abandoned, boarded-up B&B at the episode’s denouement.
The manner in which Carroll’s followers are revealed is neatly done and helps ramp up the tension throughout the episode. From the text message-prompted eye-stabber to the impressionable prison guard to the fake gay neighbours and the final, shocking sting in the tail, there is a building sense of unease that no one may be quite what they seem.
All this is fine, but the show’s key central premise – a serial killer building a cult via social media – is also its biggest flaw. While real-life serial killers have often developed their own cult following, the ease with which Carroll builds his army of acolytes while in prison – albeit aided by one of his followers – requires a fairly hefty suspension of disbelief. With limited internet access time, he establishes an online presence across 47 websites, a thousand blogs and multiple chat rooms and forums – I wish I could be that prolific! – which succeeds in reaching out to and cultivating his true believers.
Along the way we’re introduced to a number of supporting characters, albeit fleetingly. Most prominent is Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore), the young hero-worshipping sidekick, but for this first episode they’re largely one-dimensional as the plot focuses on Carroll and Hardy and the demise of the one surviving victim of his previous killing spree.
The final showdown in the cell between Carroll and Hardy is taut and well played, with Carroll nailing the alcoholic, pacemaker-supported Hardy as “a flawed, broken man searching for redemption” and goading him by placing him as the heroic protagonist of a book which the pair are going to write together. There is a real sense that the two men, both similarly obsessive personalities, somehow need one another to define their own existences, just as Batman is defined by the Joker. It’s a very good scene, reminiscent of any number of one-on-one scenes between Carrie and Brody in Homeland, but it’s just not quite as good.
The Following has lots of potential but it needs to prove that it can build on its premise and deliver something genuinely different without relying on the trappings of its horror origins. (The series is apparently based on an unused script for Scream 3.) There is a delicate line to tread here. On the one hand, Carroll’s cult of wannabe serial killers clearly lends itself to a Psycho Acolyte of the Week format going forward. However, it is the Hardy/Carroll axis which is core to the series – Bacon’s harrowed portrayal contrasts nicely with Purefoy’s charismatic, simmering malevolence – and this needs to remain front and centre for the show to become more than a standard crime procedural with added blood splatter. Will this combination be enough to sustain viewers’ interest without drifting away into schlock silliness? Only time will tell whether Fox have another Homeland on their hands, or another The Event. For now, though, despite some mixed reviews in the US, there’s more than enough to bring me back next week.
The Following continues on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 10pm.