For a while now seasoned A-list movie stars unhappy with the dearth of quality mainstream roles available on the big screen have sought refuge in the world of TV with often successful, career-defining results.
Into that arena steps one Kevin Bacon. Although fresh in many UK viewer’s minds for his UK-centric TV stream-of-consciousness rants in those recent mobile ads, Bacon is a fine Hollywood actor, with over four decades of starring (and equally impressive supporting) roles under his belt. The idea of headlining a show on a large commercial network like Fox must have been an appealing prospect for him (look at the kudos and longevity it brought for his Flatliners co-star Kiefer Sutherland), but if the first episode of this new serial killer drama is anything to go by, he may wish he had used some of that ad money to sits things out further until a TV vehicle truly worthy of his talents became available.
The series (which debuted on Sky Atlantic last Tuesday) sees Bacon as Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent, who is now retired due to a debilitating heart condition. Residing in a spacious loft apartment, where another, altogether devastating illness is beginning to take hold (a bottle of designer vodka sits in his waste paper basket) he’s called back into work when a crazed ex-college professor-turned-serial killer he initially brought down, escapes from death row.
The wanted man, Joe Carroll (played by the dashing James Purefoy) is an Edgar Alan Poe-obsessive who is intent on completing the diabolic murderous plans inspired by his favourite writer. Having built up a fanbase on the internet (thanks, in large part, to Hardy’s best-selling novel chronicling his experiences with the killer) it turns out Carroll may not be working solo on his scheme.
The Following comes from the pen of Kevin Williamson, one-time Hollywood golden boy thanks to his script for Scream, and creator of highly-articulated troubled teens TV series, Dawson’s Creek. Williamson’s initial breakthrough in horror was clearly the work of someone who knew that world inside out, however laboured his post-modern genre critiquing may have sometimes come across. With that in mind, it’s a little ironic that he invokes every conceivable cliché found in the serial killer screen catalogue, turning that knowing, self-referential dialogue with which he built his career into earnest, po-faced pap, and skating dangerously close to parody on a number of occasions.
Serial killers have hardly been given short thrift in pop culture, so something genuinely fresh and innovative is required to breathe new life into familiar material like this. Unfortunately, The Following’s whole set-up is straight from the pages of bad scriptwriting 101. Ailment and burgeoning alcoholism of main character which could seriously affect investigations – check; FBI agent’s Lecter-like symbiotic relationship with foe – check; protagonist as literary star, whose novel is used as commentary between characters (Hardy tells a manacled Carroll “if this book ends with anything but your death, you better plan on a rewrite” ) – check. The list goes on and on.
The eternally youthful-looking Bacon (who, at the age of 54, could pass for someone in their late thirties) is given nothing to do in this first episode but run around, forever on the cusp of anger (or maybe he’s channelling the resentment of having signed up for a whole season). The lack of originality is also evident in Purefoy’s hyper-intelligent, sneering killer – a guise we’ve seen numerous times before, and done with more gusto and unease.
As the demands of a network series requires scooping up as many audience as humanly possible for the first episode, the narrative whizzing along at breakneck speed, and exposition is hammered out, yet it all feels so tired and predictable, save for the unexpected (and pleasingly grizzly) demise of a central character. Post-Homeland, audiences should immediately see through this unimaginative, cynical schlock for one it is, but even those less-discernible viewers may also be unforgiving. A twist ending will guarantee healthy viewing figures next week, but audiences deserve much better than this, as does Bacon.