LOS ANGELES – Every TV showrunner wants a killer following for their series, but how well will a show about a killer’s following do?
That’s the question facing “The Following,” the new thriller on Fox starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. It airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on WPGH. Created by Kevin Williamson (“The Vampire Diaries,” the “Scream” franchise), the series centers on a death-row serial killer named Jack Carroll (Purefoy) who during nearly a decade of imprisonment has cultivated a group of disciples to carry out his demented reign of terror.
When Carroll escapes just before his scheduled execution, the FBI calls in former agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon), who was responsible for Carroll’s capture after the serial killer murdered 14 female students on the Virginia college campus where he taught literature.
In press materials for the show, Fox says the “FBI estimates there are currently up to 300 active serial killers in the United States.” The statement is repeated by Carroll in the first episode, as well as by number of television journalists in stories about the series. The figure is at the extreme upper end of any range that I could find, including on an FBI website. Most estimates are more in the 50-60 range, although there is always the caveat that no one knows for sure how many are out there, which will surely make people wonder and eye their neighbors a bit differently.
“The Following,” however, is entertainment. And for TV, which has had a number of shows about mass killers, the body count in the first episode is fairly high, with some gruesome deaths, mostly of young women.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” admits Williamson, who scored success with serial killers before with “Scream.” “You have to kind of look away, but it’s not the sum of the show. There’s also drama and emotion and a lot of other things running through it.”
This is the first regular TV series for Bacon, 54, who made his film debut in 1978’s “Animal House” and has had an interesting and varied career since with movies such as “Diner” and “Footloose” early on and “Mystic River,” “Frost/Nixon” and “X-Men: First Class” more recently. The actor says he found the script was a “page-turner” but also responded to what he calls the show’s “heart” and “sentimentality.”
“In a lot of ways, Kevin Williamson – and you may find this hard to believe – is kind of a softy,” says Bacon. “He’s really interested in the love story of the show and in the personal struggles that my character has had.”
It should be noted that Williamson, also created “Dawson’s Creek,” the rather gooey but smart teen drama that launched the careers of Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek and Joshua Jackson. Teen angst is part of his other current show, “The Vampire Diaries,” about a high-school girl torn between two fanged brothers, but he wanted to do more adult fare.
“This is a project that has been percolating in my head for many, many years in some form or another,” Williamson says about “The Following.” “The characters are older, and I’ve got several generations of characters that I get to play with. I have young characters, but I also get to write adults. I’m not a child anymore.”
Williamson says he began thinking about the concept for “The Following” when he was doing research for “Scream” and was reading about Danny Rolling, known as the Gainesville Ripper, a serial killer who brutally murdered five students in Florida in 1990 and confessed to eight murders altogether. (He was executed in 2006.) But unlike Rolling, who was a small-time hood, Williamson’s Jack Carroll is a charming, intelligent psychopath along the lines of Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
“‘Silence of the Lambs’ inspired me,” admits the writer-director. “I was the guy who saw that movie. I read the book in a day. Then I read it the next day again.”
The British actor Purefoy is no stranger to playing magnetic rogues, portraying Mark Antony in HBO’s “Rome” and the title roles in the TV movies “Blackbeard: Terror at Sea” and “Beau Brummell: This Charming Man.” But he sees differences between Lecter and Carroll, who directs his devotees’ killings.
“As we shoot the show,” says Purefoy, clearly tongue-in-cheek, “I’m more and more convinced of how little Hannibal Lecter’s vision is -- how unimpressive it is. I mean, really, he could only see up to the next meal.”
Carroll is a “romantic” – as Hardy describes him – in love with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Poor Poe. The American author of such gothic works as “The Tell-Tale Heart” was quite the eccentric, and he gets dragged into all sorts of things these days. In “The Following,” Hardy has the tell-tale heart, a pacemaker put in after Carroll stabbed him.
Williamson, as you might suspect, is a fan of the writer and remembers going to a Poe museum as a kid and seeing “The Raven” written in red on the wall. “It felt like blood everywhere,” he says.
So it’s no surprise that Poe is part of provocative posters for “The Following” that show a woman – nude from the waist up with the author’s writings on her body – holding an ice pick aimed at her head.
Fox also has been marketing the series with a teaser campaign showing innocent-looking people with phrases like “Do I Look Like a Killer?” and “Even Serial Killers Have Friends” to emphasize the drama’s cult theme. Perhaps the biggest stretch for the show is the idea that a serial killer could command an army of serial killers. But then, Williamson’s favorite show of all time, Fox’s “24,” continually stretched the boundaries of credulity and managed to capture viewers.