Watch shocking, striking 'The Following' at your own risk

FOX Network Upfront
"The Following" cast members Kevin Bacon, left, and James Purefoy attend the FOX network upfront presentation party at Wollman Rink, Monday, May 14, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)

The season's most gripping new series, The Following, debuts Monday night (9 p.m. on Fox29). I'd advise you not to watch.

The show stars Kevin Bacon as the hunter - and foil - of a terrifying serial killer. It marks the first time a network series has attained sustained cinematic quality. But that accomplishment is a nasty double-edged sword.

The pilot rivals anything you'll see at the cineplex in terms of acting, surprise, and suspense. You will go into each commercial break with your heart in your throat.

But what really makes The Following more like a feature film than a primetime program is its extravagant, emphatic savagery. There are several scenes on Monday that I cannot describe in this review - not because I don't want to give away the plot, but because they are too graphic and gory.

I'm quite aware that that cruel prospect will intrigue as many viewers as it will repulse, so let's get on with the show.

Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI profiler who a decade ago identified and captured a particularly gruesome and prolific serial killer. But Hardy's victory exacted a considerable toll, including a bad ticker and a terrible thirst.

When that killer escapes from a penitentiary in Virginia just a month before he is scheduled to be executed, the FBI persuades a reluctant (and retired) Hardy to help them track this deadly criminal.

It turns out that during his incarceration, the charismatic killer was recruiting a small army of depraved acolytes. Now, his minions are carrying out their own fiendishly planned campaigns of terror, many of them expressly designed to unhinge Hardy's fragile equilibrium.

Bacon is outstanding as the damaged paladin. His performance elevates The Following, and it elevates him. In the early going at least, the show's Ryan Hardy is one of the best roles in the Philadelphia-born actor's busy career.

The reason TV so often fails at this genre is that it's imperative for the villain to overshadow the hero. And James Purefoy (John Carter) fairly radiates menace and malevolence as Joe Carroll, the show's romantic sociopath.

I use the word romantic because one of the show's conceits is that while Carroll was first planning and carrying out his heinous crimes, he was a legendary English professor at a university in Richmond, Va. In frequent flashbacks, we see him giving disquisitions on Gothic literature, most notably that of his idol, Edgar Allan Poe, to rooms full of spellbound students.

Any show that celebrates the magic of literature and spurs interest in Poe, even in as ghoulish a fashion as this, is OK in my book.

The obvious forebear for this brazen project from Kevin Williamson, who created the Scream franchise, is Thomas Harris' monstrous Hannibal Lector.

But The Following is patterned not so much on The Silence of the Lambs as it is on Manhunter, an earlier Michael Mann-directed film that provided a pre-CSI William Petersen with a career-making turn as the FBI agent pressured out of exile.

The cast of The Following also includes Maggie Grace (Lost), Natalie Zea (Raylan Givens' ex on Justified), Shawn Ashmore, and Annie Parisse.

Naturally, there are implausibilities in the concept, among them whether a death row prisoner would really be permitted to have hundreds of visitors for unmonitored, face-to-face conversations?

Even so, this is a meticulously produced show, right down to the music. The pilot makes striking use of Marilyn Manson's mordant cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." (Manson - how fitting). And the second episode employs a sinister slice of Sepultura.

Monday's debut is one of the most masterly and moving pilots ever made for broadcast television.

As it develops episodically, The Following becomes more conventional, and its pace slows. Typically, Hardy is focused on a single rescue per hour.

Don't let your guard down, however. Shocking, sudden moments of violence are still this show's bloody calling card.

The first and most important question you must ask yourself in considering The Following is whether you have the stomach for its aggressive brutality.

Get that issue settled before the show starts, because once you've experienced Bacon's haunted performance, you may find yourself watching whether you want to or not.

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552,, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.