More than 150 years after his death, Edgar Allan Poe can boast a superfluous achievement: He is one degree away from Kevin Bacon. Sort of.
In Fox’s new psychological thriller ‘The Following,’ the 54-year-old Centre of the Hollywood Universe plays a former FBI agent dispatched to track down a professor-of-literature-turned-Poe-inspired-serial-killer (James Purefoy) who has escaped from prison and recruited an army of murderous followers via the internet.
The series, which premiered on January 21, is one of the more anticipated midseason offerings — no small feat for any network in an increasingly crowded TV landscape. In fact, Fox is so pleased with the psychological crime thriller that executives are hopeful the bold and brutal drama will get broadcast back into the Emmy drama race, which has been overrun by cable (the network’s last showing in the category was in 2010 with the now-concluded long-running medical drama ‘House’). “I'm very excited to put it on the air,” said Kevin Reilly, the network’s chairman of entertainment. “I think it’s going to make a splash. I have a lot of ambitions for this show and I’d like it to be a hit commercially, I’d like it to bring home some trophies — and I’m pretty confident that it will.”
For Bacon, an actor known for his eclectic filmography, ‘The Following’ marks his first regular TV role. Though he’s the first to point out his short stints on ‘Guiding Light’ and ‘Search for Tomorrow’ early in his career, he once shunned small screen roles because it used to mean “the end of a movie career,” he said.
(Hence the reason ‘Animal House’ fans never saw Bacon reprise his role as smarmy fraternity pledge Chip Diller in the film’s 1979 TV adaptation, ‘Delta House.’) But after his wife Kyra Sedgwick’s success on TNT’s ‘The Closer,’ and a switch in his own TV viewing habits — he changed his mind about television.
“I used to be the guy who only had eyes for basketball and ‘60 Minutes’ when it came to TV,” he said. “Now, I’m the guy sitting down to watch an entire season of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Six Feet Under’ and obsessed with ‘Dexter’ week after week.” Initially, he envisioned working only on a premium cable channel as he had done before for HBO’s 2009 ‘Taking Chance,’ which earned him a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll look, but only on Showtime and HBO’ — it was that kind of snobbery,” said the actor, who added he’s been disappointed lately in potential roles for film.
Ultimately, he found his elevated drama with the narrative strength of cable — only it was on a broadcast network. He plays Ryan Hardy, the damaged ex-FBI agent prone to stashing vodka in water bottles and charged with hunting down an erudite madman. (Bacon would only commit if the series consisted of abbreviated 15-episode seasons.)
Created by Kevin Williamson — known for horror films ‘Scream’ and ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer,’ as well as TV series ‘The Vampire Diaries’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’ — ‘The Following’ has the gore and histrionic violence that could easily have landed it on Fox’s cable sibling network FX.
Before the first break in the pilot episode, audiences will quickly realise how gruesome the show can be.
“There's no doubt that there are things going on in Kevin Williamson’s mind that I would rather not know about — especially if this is the network TV version of what’s going on in his mind,” joked Purefoy, who researched infamous killers such as cult leader Jim Jones and serial murderer Ted Bundy to play Poe-wannabe Joe Carroll.
The amped-up violence comes at an especially poor time, however, in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut and amid calls for the entertainment industry to look at whether it plays a role in fostering a culture of violence. After the tragedy, Fox pulled ads for the programme — and it remains to be seen if advertisers will be tuned off by the content of ‘The Following.’
The show’s premise was born about 15 years ago when Williamson was working on the screenplay for the first ‘Scream.’ Oddments that didn’t make the cut for the slasher film and its sequels would serve as the foundation for the serial killer drama.
Williamson had originally envisioned it as a movie, and then considered turning it into a cable series (then a movie again) before it landed at Fox.
“After the experience I had with ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ I wanted to do another show that had that sort of adrenaline rush,” Williamson said. ‘And ‘24’ is like my favourite show of all time and I thought if I could marry those worlds a little bit and just sort of do a fast-paced thriller, that would be fun.”
After signing Bacon, it was critical to find a worthy adversary to complete the twisted hero-villain romance. Purefoy, the 48-year-old English actor who portrayed Marc Antony in HBO’s ‘Rome,’ won the role as the psychopath after a screen test with Bacon — an exchange that when later shot with a full crew now serves as the pilot’s final scene.
“I find it quite hard to play the part because he’s a man who is so deeply nihilistic, so deeply obsessed with and fantasising about death and the culture of death,” Purefoy said of his character.
An abbreviated 15-episode first season — most broadcast seasons are 22 episodes — facilitates Williamson’s swift narrative style at a time when TV plots especially on cable have been accelerating and providing viewers with grander story jolts. “People, now, have seen everything before,” Williamson said. “Before, people could sort of watch dramas with four-act structures, and you could sort of tell the story slower because you had 22 episodes. Today’s audience — particularly the audience I aim my computer at — is very fast-paced. It’s the audience who can turn the page faster than I can write it. I like it. I like the adrenaline.”