Television has become synonymous with comfort and pleasure — it is now easy to sit down as a family and watch a favorite half-hour comedy. In turn, many viewers have come to expect programs with less serious subject matter. The show “Happy Endings” even brings this idea of desirable television to a dramatic climax with its title, a viciously obvious statement of intentions.
“The Following” has come along to lay waste to these conceptions of fun, funny or easy television viewing on network television. Kevin Williamson’s new series, unmistakably branded with the Fox stamp of graphic violence, is intense, cold and relentlessly cynical. Williamson is not unaccustomed to this negative outlook — his “Scream” series is bent on having a masked serial killer be the victor, consequently including his loser protagonists in the body count.
For “The Following,” Williamson applies his brilliant sense for mean-spirited entertainment — sans smirk-worthy witticisms — to an already dour genre: the noir. The pilot begins with a drunk and traumatized ex-police officer, a trope audiences should expect in the genre, this time in the form of Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon). But Hardy is “The Following’s” only predictable aspect. The show then transitions into some truly unsettling content, as Hardy confronts Joe Carroll (James Purfoy), an Edgar Allen Poe-obsessed baccalaureate who is masterminding a series of murders and may be responsible for beginning a cult.
Part of the reason “The Following” is so disturbing is its inability let audiences catch their breath. Beyond a few slow opening scenes, the show maintains a whiplash pace. “The Following” is jarring for its speed and intelligence, and that alone differs it from anything else currently on network television.
More importantly, “The Following” certainly brings the intensity its previews promised. The show will undoubtedly draw fire for its content, as unpleasantly realistic blood runs freely from repeatedly stabbed corpses and eyeless faces. A scene involving a knife and an eye is almost engineered to set Twitter ablaze. In many cases, Fox has a tendency to take violence over the line, and the pilot’s violence is a bit concerning, considering its prime-time slot. But it feels merited in its efforts to push the limits of prime-time content in the same way the images of unnaturally contorted dead bodies in “Se7en” did — it creates a cynical air that envelops and enhances the material despite its gruesome nature.
By the end of the pilot, “The Following” picks up an unexpectedly brutal knack for tension. Whereas most hours of television slow down in their final minutes, “The Following’s” intensity spikes, setting up increasingly darker story lines for upcoming episodes. Williamson’s brazen commitment to cynicism is admirable enough, but his ability to make the show genuinely eerie is even more respectable.
Network television has yet to see a relentlessly dark, atmospheric and unsettling show since the ’90s when “The X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” temporarily thrived. It was only so long until a truly creepy show returned. “The Following” marks the return of such eerie fare, and with its pilot’s twisty final minutes, it promises to tread dark, immensely entertaining terrain.
Alex Greenberger is entertainment editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org