The pilot for Fox's new series The Following, about a Poe-obsessed serial killer (James Purefoy) and the former FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) in pursuit of him, had about as dark an ending as anything I'd ever seen on television. Honestly, it was a bit too graphic for me. My brother stuck with it, however, and convinced me to hang on for a few more episodes. While subsequent episodes remained as violent as almost anything on broadcast TV, I thankfully did not find them as disturbing and fatalistic as the pilot. Instead, I found the first season of The Following to be, to my surprise, perhaps best described as "The Vampire Diaries for adults." Maybe this shouldn't have been so surprising, since The Following's creator, Kevin Williamson (Scream, Dawson's Creek), was also the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries.
Like The Vampire Diaries, The Following is an incredibly fast-paced, twist-driven, and cliffhanger-heavy serialized show. It's also completely nuts. Past the pilot, the series actually focuses less on Purefoy's serial killer character, charismatic English professor and failed novelist Joe Carroll, and more on his (as it turns out) massive and pervasive cult of fanatical followers ready to carry out his murderous plans even as he sits behind bars (Carroll is apprehended at the end of the pilot). The show is not remotely a realistic study of cults, and it frankly strains credulity how this guy lecturing on Edgar Allan Poe ever managed to attract such a devoted and well-organized following of capable killers from all sectors of society. Basically, any character other than lead good guy Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) is potentially an agent for Carroll, and so often does an episode end with the twist that some friend, neighbor, or local law enforcement officer is an undercover cultist that you're quickly left more wondering who isn't a follower, rather than who is.
As implausible as it is, The Following also makes for some intensely gripping television viewing. Just like The Vampire Diaries, the show has a twisted affection for its irredeemably evil characters, which it somehow manages to spread to the viewer as well. After the part they played in the pilot, I wanted nothing more than for Carroll and the core trio of followers in the main cast to get what was coming to them. As subsequent episodes shifted attention away from Carroll's ritualistic killings, however, and more time was spent exploring the threesome as they fended for themselves, I found myself bizarrely invested in their story. It wasn't as if there were ever any developments redeeming them; these people remained always thoroughly and murderously insane. But they exhibited occasional semblances of humanity in their three-way relationship, and the volatility within the group, setting up one or another at different times as more sympathetic, quickly became a bigger draw for me than the conflict between Carroll and Hardy. Somehow, even though I knew they didn't really deserve it, I found myself rooting for them to make it out—break free of the cult and just ride off into the sunset. As on The Vampire Diaries, however, there are seemingly no happy endings in the cards for anyone.
Indeed, as even major characters can get taken out very suddenly on any given episode, the best thing about The Following is just how unpredictable it is. Of course, what do you expect when most of them are insane? Eventually, it becomes apparent that, although Carroll has plenty of influence, his actual control over his own followers is limited at best. The man himself doesn't quite live up to the idea of him that these psychopathic romantics have built up in their own heads, of this visionary mastermind who has made death his art. And so what we have is a show where almost every character is a complete wildcard, and hell is perpetually threatening to break loose (and does). I really don't know how they'll be able to sustain this, but I'm already feeling the long wait for the second season.