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I got a look at the first episode of "The Following," Fox's upcoming crime thriller, a few weeks ago. Its level of graphic violence left me disgusted and dismayed. But with plenty of time to spare before its Jan. 21 premiere, I set it aside, resolving to give the show another chance while wondering if I was just having a bad day.
More of "The Following" arrived from Fox last Friday, a really bad day. But I made time to watch those additional three episodes over the weekend, between heartbroken stretches viewing coverage of the shootings in Connecticut.
Yes, I was hyper-sensitized to the senseless real-life violence and bloodlust plaguing this country as I screened the series' dramatized savagery.
But my reaction to "The Following" was no more pronounced than weeks earlier. My opinion was the same: "The Following" is a showcase for gratuitous carnage and cruelty that might best be described as pornographic.
Of course, maybe porn is the sweet spot for any broadcast network struggling to launch a series that will be noticed in an ever-more-crowded media marketplace. No doubt about it, "The Following" will be hard to overlook.
To be fair, there's much to like about the show. It has a fine cast, in particular Annie Parisse ("Law & Order") , Natalie Zea ("Justified") and James Purefoy ("Rome"). And who doesn't love Kevin Bacon, making his entry into series television? Plus, it was created by Kevin Williamson, known for the horror films "Scream" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the TV series "The Vampire Diaries," but also for "Dawson's Creek."
Never mind all that. (Alert: spoilers ahead.)
The premise is a rickety contrivance. Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent pulled out of retirement to track down a serial killer he nabbed years before but who escapes from prison in the gory opening scene.
Joe Carroll (Purefoy) was a charismatic English professor and novelist with a taste for Edgar Allen Poe and grisly performance art (his specialty is stabbing deaths and the removal of his victims' eyes). He was convicted a decade ago for the murder of 14 young women at the university where he taught.
Little is left to the imagination on "The Following," which fetishizes butchery almost as much as its arch-villain.
But the bulk of the brutality is delegated by Carroll (who is back in jail by the end of the premiere) to a legion of psycho-disciples - that is, his Following. These ghastly Santa's Helpers infiltrate the world, poised to do their master's murderous bidding. (Item: One of his recruits slaughters the residents of a girls' dorm while masquerading as a security guard.)
Why do they follow him? It's "the pathology of today's Internet-techno-bred minds," explains Debra Parker (Parisse), an FBI cult specialist. "Enter a handsome, charismatic man who can touch them, make them feel their lives for the first time. He conditions them: The only way to truly live is to kill. Or some crap like that."
Well, she said it. And that seems to be the show's lone, hackneyed message.
So Hardy is roused from the drunken funk he sank into when the case was closed a decade before, to resume battle with this diabolical foe. And Carroll seems intent on targeting individuals whose deaths will be especially traumatic for Hardy. These innocents include Carroll's ex-wife, Claire (Zea), with whom Hardy fell in love while chasing Carroll before, triggering rage in the cuckolded husband.
Protecting her from Carroll's wrath is now priority one for Hardy. But he and his team seem forever outsmarted by the bad guys, which sets the stage for lots of killings Hardy seems helpless to prevent. Any time he tells someone, "Nothing's gonna happen to you, I promise you that," the viewer might as well brace for another bloodbath.
Poe's famous catchphrase, "Never more," is repeatedly invoked in the series. "Never more" is what I'd say about the show.
But maybe other viewers will just love "The Following." And maybe rival networks will soon be scrambling to further up the ante with savage dramas of their own.
I don't automatically condemn TV violence. Series like "Breaking Bad," "The Walking Dead" and stomach-churning "Dexter" regularly bust taboos. But they put violence in the service of a larger storytelling mission, not just gory sensation. That's how it should be. A series ought to earn the creative license to go extreme. It ought to justify its excesses with even bigger meaning. "The Following" demonstrates no such responsibility.
"The Following" is scheduled to premiere a month from now. So if the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has made some viewers queasy about violence on TV, they've got a whole month to get over it. Sometimes memories are short-lived.
And though there's been a call the past few days for a "national conversation" about violence, there were similar hopes voiced for a conversation about race after Trayvon Martin's shooting last February. That conversation didn't last long.
A positive sign: On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a task force to craft concrete proposals concerning gun control, mental health issues and "a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence." He said ideas are due by the end of January, which happens to be just a few days after "The Following" debuts.
"The Following" looms as the wrong show at the wrong time, a red flag being waved at a sorrowful nation. But it isn't just a matter of too much too soon. I think any time would be too soon for this kind of show.