YONKERS, N.Y. - The Following, Fox's grisly crime thriller premiering Monday (9 p.m. ET/PT), is all about connections.
There are the connections of mass murderer Joe Carroll (Rome's James Purefoy), a literature professor imprisoned for the 2003 slayings of 14 women, to the macabre works of 19th-century author Edgar Allan Poe.
There are the connections of Carroll to FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who wrote a best seller about the case he cracked before his affair with Carroll's wife was made public and his life went into a downward spiral. "He became kind of the walking dead," says Bacon. "Spinning his wheels, drinking too much, living in this pad in Brooklyn, and he has this book (that) in some ways, he's ashamed to have written, trading on this horror."
There are the emotional connections between Carroll and a small army of cult "followers" who commit murders on his behalf.
And there are the unfortunate but unavoidable connections, in the media and the public's mind, between Fox's much-anticipated midseason drama and the real-life carnage of Sandy Hook. That mass murder occurred about the same time the network started its major publicity push, a linkage that forced it to tone down a marketing campaign featuring a woman wielding an ice pick.
Purefoy, who describes The Following as "deeply unsettling," is unapologetic about the show's startling, graphic violence, which seldom relies on gunplay but instead leans toward blood-soaked stabbings, eye-gouging and, in one scene, setting a man on fire.
"I'm not a fan of Ambien TV, that drifts through you," he says. "I like television that grabs me by the throat and shakes me up and down." And in a cultural climate teeming with vampires and zombies, "serial killers are one of the scariest of them all, because they're real. He could be the guy in the grocery store who's looking at you funny."
Creator Kevin Williamson describes the show as "emotional horror. It's got a very out-there story line and is very scary, but the twists and turns of genre storytelling allow for love and an emotional component" tied to two unlikely triangles, including the one between Hardy, Carroll and his ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea).
Though crime and mayhem is among TV's most popular genres, Williamson responded to aggressive questioning by critics this month at the Television Critics Association press tour, saying his writers were "traumatized" by the real-world shootings. "There is a reaction to it, and it sort of finds its way into what I do," he says, noting that the 1999 Columbine killings partly inspired him to explore the minds of killers. But "I'm writing fiction. I'm just a storyteller."
Fox chairman Kevin Reilly says the show doesn't deserve to become the poster child for televised gore. Ultimately, "it's a cop chasing a bad guy. I'm not glorifying killers," Reilly says.
And though it's being promoted with the quote "You won't believe it's not on cable," Williamson certainly does. Unlike cable, programming on local broadcast stations is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, which often turns a blind eye to mayhem but is prudish about sex.
"The shocking thing is, we do have to challenge broadcast standards," he says. "We killed four people in one episode, but they said no to the three-way."
A film without an ending
The Following kicks into gear when Carroll escapes from prison in Monday's premiere. Hardy is called out of retirement to find him again, only to discover he'd used a prison computer to lure and direct a cult of willing "followers" to do his bidding as a sign of their devotion. Who they are, how many there are and where they'll strike next is what propels the show each week.
"The big story is, how far has this cult gone? How many followers are there? What is its reach?" Bacon says. "And also, what's his end game? Is it all about me, making me suffer? Is it about Claire? Your kid? What's the plan? And hopefully the audience is going to be wondering the same thing."
Williamson developed the idea years ago as a feature film but couldn't come up with an ending. So the writer behind such varied projects as the Scream movies, Dawson's Creek and The Vampire Diaries pitched it as a series that would toggle between the present day and flashbacks that develop the characters and fill in gaps in the original crime spree.
"We're asking you to root for this broken leading man and (ask), 'Will he ever find love?' " he says. And for Purefoy's Carroll, who "drips with charisma" as he seduces - figuratively, at least - his acolytes. "He's a person who can look at someone, size them up, figure out what they're missing and make them whole," Williamson says. "He's practicing the religion of living life through death. It's a little dark, a little psycho, it's a little twisted. Even our heroes are very dark and damaged."
Especially Hardy, who has "a strange kind of admiration for this guy," Bacon says. "He's a horrible person, he's a murderer, he's despicable, I want him dead. And yet there are aspects of his personality I kind of admire and wish I was more like. He's great with people, he's charming, he's erudite, he's well-read - all things that I am not."
Purefoy says the two main characters "have a very complicated, symbiotic relationship" as each has made a celebrity of the other. "They feed off each other," he says. "It's a very strange love story, in a weird way, with the two of them."
Fox's Reilly says he was looking for a show with an "intensity" that could make it a worthy successor to spy drama 24, which ran for eight seasons, most recently in the same Monday time slot. The network's audience has shrunk 20% this season, with American Idol's return last week down 18%.
In a season bereft of buzzed-about new hits, AMC's The Walking Dead was TV's top draw among young adults last fall, marginalizing the big networks' long-held dominance. The Following generated early critical heat - not to mention publicity - and is seen as the networks' best chance to break through this winter.
"There are not that many shows that will grab you and say, 'This must be watched now,' " Reilly says. "I feel like it surprises you at every turn, and my palms sweat when I watch it. And I think that's a good thing. It's nice to watch a show where you go, 'I'm not sure I want to keep watching this, but I can't stop.' That's one marker for a good thriller."
'More heroic' role on TV
But not all serial killers are created equal.
Compared with Carroll,The Silence of the Lambs' cannibal Hannibal Lecter (who is also coming to network TV in an upcoming NBC drama) is "a man of remarkably little vision," Purefoy says. "He can barely see beyond his next meal." And Showtime's Dexter is merely "a man who's doing community service" by killing off bad guys who escape justice.
Producers are coy about whether Carroll stays on the lam, but Purefoy is less cagey: "I'm not sure there's an actor alive who would sign a seven-year contract to stay in an orange jumpsuit."
The series marks Bacon's first starring role on TV and his first series since CBS soap Guiding Light in the early 1980s, between roles in Animal House and Diner. The actor, 54, has done so many movies that the well-known trivia game he inspired, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, is now an easy Google search. (Just type any actor's name followed by "Bacon number.")
But recent roles have left him yearning for meatier fare.
"I was getting frustrated with the movie scripts I was reading and the opportunities," he says in an interview in his trailer, as his rescue dog, Lilly, idles impatiently nearby with a squeak toy. "I was getting bad-guy stuff," including upcoming roles in comics-based R.I.P.D. and a new X-Men film. "That's fine, I don't have a problem with it. But I've always been someone who doesn't want to keep doing the same thing," he says. "I knew if I went to television that I wanted something more heroic."
And though he insisted he'd consider only cable series - he wanted raw life-or-death material and fewer episodes - he responded to Williamson's over-the-top script. ("It seems like he has a brilliant if slightly twisted mind," Bacon says.)
Comparing notes with his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, who just wrapped up a six-season run on TNT hit The Closer, he also negotiated a 15-episode season (network series traditionally shoot 22 or more) and filming locations near his home in New York City, although the series is set in Virginia.
On a warm December day along the Hudson River here, Hardy is investigating a crime scene in which the body of another woman named Claire Matthews has been dumped out of a high-rise apartment window by a female follower attempting to draw Carroll's Claire out of hiding.
What did Bacon learn from Sedgwick and his time directing four Closer episodes? "Seeing what her hours were like" and "the pace and intensity and exhaustion of getting an hour (drama) done," he says. But her character, Brenda Leigh Johnson, "talks a lot more than Ryan Hardy. I don't know how she did it."
And Hardy is wondering the same thing about Joe Carroll's murderous spree.