To buy the central conceit of Fox's latest dark crime drama, viewers have to believe a serial killer is so well organized -- and that there are people so susceptible they would be in his thrall -- that he can, from death row, seduce groupies into becoming sleeper agent serial killers who follow his orders and bide their time for years before being activated.
It's a tough notion to swallow but that's what executive producer Kevin Williamson ("The Vampire Diaries") is asking with "The Following" (9 p.m. Monday, WPGH), a dark, sometimes upsetting drama (for its graphic violence and gore) that also has several interesting, unexpected twists.
It takes "The Following" until episode three to invoke the name of Charles Manson and other notorious cult leaders who preceded the show's Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, "Rome"), an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed college professor-turned-serial-killer of women.
FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) captured Carroll in 2003, fell in love with Carroll's wife (Natalie Zea, "Justified") and then had an alcohol-fueled meltdown.
As the pilot begins, Carroll has escaped from death row and begun a new reign of terror with the assistance of his devoted followers. They murder others -- and, occasionally, kill themselves -- with an ice pick to the eye, an ode to a Poe quote. They're also fond of writing "Nevermore" in blood and occasionally wearing a Poe mask while committing their atrocities. After this week's premiere, the show's focus turns largely to a trio of Carroll's followers.
"The Following" uses flashbacks to fill in the blanks of all the characters, including Hardy and the Carroll devotees. The show's writers are unafraid to dispatch characters who seem like they could be series regulars. So don't get attached to anyone; then again, that would be tough because the marked-for-death characters are generally underdeveloped.
"The Following" marks Mr. Bacon's first major TV series role since he appeared on the daytime soap "The Guiding Light" in the early 1980s. The appeal of a broken character who's being coaxed back into the field is somewhat understandable but after his wife Kyra Sedgwick's experience on "The Closer" you might expect him to take on a role that's not a dime-a-dozen damaged crime solver.
It doesn't help that Mr. Bacon's Hardy is saddled with some dialogue that's intended to be clever but strains from trying too hard.
"If this book ends in anything other than your death, you better plan a rewrite," Hardy tells Carroll after Carroll reveals his dastardly scheme that somehow involves Hardy in a sort of "kill your own adventure" book plot. (Carroll is also a disgruntled author whose sole novel was widely panned.)
"The Following" offers a dark premise that's full of murder, threats of murder, child endangerment and the like. That alone makes the series a turn-off for some viewers.
Others will object to the preposterous premise and plot turns -- of course a killer can sneak into a home that's surrounded by police! -- and the notion that "The Following" is being offered up as a potential multi-year TV series. How long can one cult abide before its members are all rounded up?
If Hardy is sort of a generic, damaged hero, Carroll is a somewhat more inspired literature-loving lunatic. But the most intriguing characters are Carroll's followers.
Through the show's first four episodes, an unexpected love triangle develops among three of Carroll's devotees that's tinged with unexpected sexual politics and questions about sexual identity. It's the only aspect of "The Following" that feels fresh. Too bad this plot only serves as a side dish; the main course is the same old reheated serial killer/crime solver hash.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.