What if a serial killer was so charismatic that he could activate and control an army of other serial killers? This is the question posed by Fox’s new series “The Following,” and it wants you to find the answer both interesting and horrifying.
Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is the charismatic serial killer who murdered 14 female students on the college campus where he taught literature. He is caught in 2003 by FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), but not before leaving Hardy with physical and psychological scars. When we meet Carroll, it is the present, he has escaped death row and Hardy is recalled as a consultant on the case.
But this isn’t a show about the weekly hunt for an escaped serial killer. Carroll quickly ends up back on death row and the FBI discovers that he has spent his years in jail building a network like-minded killers who will do anything he commands. He is their high priest and he has a plan — a very elaborate plan that suggests he is an amazing mastermind. This is where you either suspend your disbelief or lose interest in the premise because there are a few things you have to let go.
Carroll spends years online during his permitted jail time library visits to build a vast social network of psychotics. I can maybe accept that he’s really good at social networking, but why is he allowed computer access in the first place? His followers appear anywhere and everywhere committing gruesome murders on his command. This is part of the show’s horror. No one is safe and every scene could suddenly turn into a blood bath. It’s a good strategy for keeping the audience on edge and it works but only for a short time. After a while, I was anticipating the plot device and just trying to guess who the next crazy killer will be. The core group of followers, including his son’s seemingly sweet nanny and two straight guys who pretended to be gay for years so that they could gain the trust of the one female student who survived Carroll’s rampage, are in charge of carrying out their mentor’s plan. They look like models but are actually deranged killers and fairly creepy. There’s also an obsession with the works of Edgar Allen Poe and the idea that Carroll’s plan is actually a “story” where Hardy is the central character and the junior killers all have a “chapter.”
In the third episode, the lead FBI agent on the case, who specializes in alternative religions, says that she doesn’t “get” this cult. It’s a good point. Other than a convoluted Poe subplot about killing being a path to living and Carroll’s extraordinary powers to charm anyone he meets, which are only demonstrated in flashbacks to his teaching days, it’s not clear what drives his devotees. If the series doesn’t spend more time answering this question, viewers might start wondering the same thing.
Page 2 of 2 - If you can get past all the above, you can enjoy the show for its psychological darkness which it does best in a storyline involving Carroll’s young son. While his mind games with Hardy form the backbone of the series, they are far less horrifying than the plans he has for his child.
“The Following” is on Mondays at 9 p.m. EDT on Fox.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.