What do Charles Manson, Jim Jones and Adolf Hitler have in common?

On the most basic level they [had] the ability to gather a following willing to do whatever was commanded. And evil is what was commanded.

And so it is with Fox’s new show, The Following starring a couple of fine actors, Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy.

James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon

James Purefoy and Kevin Bacon

Kevin Bacon is the “good guy” as Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent, currently disabled with a heart pace maker, called back into service to hunt down a second time, James Purefoy , “the bad guy” as Joe Carroll. Carroll is a serial killer, college professor, who while in prison manages to create a social network of fellow killers via the prison library’s computer. His followers are known as The Following.

Got all that?

There is more, perhaps a lot more as the writer’s have created a series like 24 in its ability to deliver a tense cliffhanger. Bacon and Purefoy are excellent in their respective roles.

The show’s main premise is that the Purefoy character seems to exist for the sole purpose of tormenting Bacon with his following because Bacon is the one guy who figured him out. It is on that level a psychological thriller as the two play mind games with one another. Purefoy, has the advantage because no one knows exactly how many are following him and therefore Bacon and the FBI are learning no one can be trusted. The show is frequently tense and I’m guessing will be a hit.

The series started with Purefoy escaping from prison as one of his followers, a prison guard, brutally murders 1/2 dozen other prison guards. Bacon is called out of retirement to track him down. Purefoy spends his escape by hunting down one of his previous victims who got away from him the first time due to Bacon’s timely intervention. The shocker is that Purefoy succeeds as Bacon fails to rescue the young woman.

The incident seems to set the pace as more potential victims are discovered. At times the FBI hero arrives in the nick of time but other times not thus creating the tension of who will survive and who will be killed by The Following next.

Revenge on Kevin Bacon is Purefoy’s motive. After Purefoy’s incarceration Bacon has an affair with Purefoy’s ex-wife thus creating further tension between the characters. Part of The Following kidnap Purefoy’s son to hurt the ex-wife and Bacon. The trio behind the plot is a weird menage-a-trios of two homosexual men and one woman who proves that both are not exclusively homosexual.

I should point out that much of each episode consists of flashbacks via Ryan Hardy’s point of view.

The show has something in common with 24 other than the weekly cliffhanger. The Bacon character, Ryan Hardy is not unlike Jack Bauer who bears the burden of trying to save people. He takes it personally when he cannot. In one scene he breaks the fingers of Purefoy just as Jack Bauer would have in his quest for justice or information that would save lives.

Ryan is as troubled as Jack Bauer too. He fears re-establishing his relationship with Carroll’s ex-wife although he loves her and her him. Hardy is also a bit like Bauer in that he is willing to disobey his superiors and go off the grid to pursue leads. The FBI, for their part, with one exception, look at Hardy as a bit of a head case with a pace maker just as CTU started to see Jack Bauer as a loose cannon (that they needed).

What The Following does not have in common with 24 is the gruesome violence.

The Following has the earmarks of a weird religious cult. Joe Carroll was the Professor of English Literature who has a fascination with Poe and “death as art.” Carroll’s followers are taken in by his “charm” and intelligence and eager to reproduce the killings that Carroll performed on his 14 victims. The  Following’s victims are sadistically murdered as the following seek to imitate their master. The scenes are terrifying and gruesome though not always ritualistic. The Following or most so far seem devoid of any semblance of conscience, thus mirroring the likes of any current mass murderer.

The Following often goes further than 24 in the blood and gore department. In that sense, it has more in common with a slasher movie than a purely psychological thriller. The scenes are scary and intentionally so, thus proving Stephen King’s axiom that people like to be scared (as long as they know they are not personally in danger).

The Following main cast. Good guys are on the right, bad guys on the left.

The Following main cast. Good guys are on the right, bad guys on the left.

In this way death becomes a spectator sport and at least for my wife and I unsettling. Last week she said to me, “how many nuts will copy this?”

So, why did we decide not to follow The Following despite the fine acting and cliffhanger aspects of the show?

If you asked my wife she’s probably say it’s too intense, too graphic and too unsettling and that would be reason enough. I would not disagree. I seriously question the pushing of the violence envelope in order to shock. We’ve come a long way from Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers.

On a deeper level in a series with spiritual over tones the series is superficial. Depending on who is doing the viewing each of the main characters is a savior of sorts. For The Following Carroll represents something more than their mundane and ordinary lives can provide. Carroll is the cult-like figure with superior intelligence that is also charming and mesmerizing,

The Following have a chance to be “someone” and claim 15 minutes of fame by doing Carroll’s bidding. An often repeated line is “pleasing Joe.” The Following do what they do to “please Joe” even if pleasing Joe means committing suicide. In other words, the Carroll character gives The Following purpose and hope. The theme is demonic without overtly saying so.

The Ryan Hardy character is a savior figure too. His goal is save others from The Following. Often times he fails and evil triumphs. While Hardy is the good guy he really does not provide any hope beyond surviving the next attack.

And that is what is the most unsettling to me. The show does not provoke any deeper thinking in my opinion, such as the where does evil come from and how are people taken in by charismatic figures? Even the Walking Dead another show that can be a gore fest does provoke some thinking with the various moral dilemmas survivors of a zombie apocalypse face. In fact, one advertising blurb for the Walking Dead is, Fight the Dead, Fear the Living thus making a great point about mankind.

I am hard pressed to find anything redeeming about The Following other than just “stopping the bad guy and his following.” Man’s depravity is on full display as well as relative good and malevolent evil without much of a context. I realize the series is not supposed to be a theological treatise and that its main purpose is to entertain. I get that.

I just simply do want to invest my “entertainment” time in a series that is so dark, so malevolent that it seems to lack any redeeming purpose at all.

And that’s the way I see it or in this case see it no longer.