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Subtle it is not, but Kevin Williamson's The Following is crackling entertainment buoyed by strong performances from Kevin Bacon, as an FBI agent with emotional baggage, and James Purefoy, as a cunning serial killer and cult leader on the run. Williamson, who is best known for writing '90s teen horror film Scream and developing TV shows Dawson's Creek and The Vampire Diaries, shows a willingness to forego restraint and, occasionally, good taste in pursuit of entertainment. I suspect The Following has the highest body count on cable, and each episode plays like a fast-moving thriller. Purefoy's Joe Carroll escapes from prison to continue his ritualistic killing spree and is assisted by a cult of followers willing to throw down their lives for their leader. Bacon's Ryan Hardy is hauled back to the FBI because he nabbed Carroll the first time. A strong supporting cast teases your moral center, and only in the last couple of episodes does The Following lose a bit of steam.
Carroll was a professor of literature moonlighting as a serial killer, and he took the lives of over a dozen young women before Hardy connected the dots and took him down. The Following's pilot opens with Carroll's bloody escape from prison and introduces the viewer to heavy drinking Hardy, whose heart bears the physical scars of his previous encounter with Carroll. Hardy easily - too easily - recaptures Carroll, who reveals that his as-yet-unknown plans have been set in motion and that his physical presence is not required outside of prison. The series is as much about the supporting characters as it is Hardy and Carroll, and the excellent cast includes Natalie Zea as Carroll's ex-wife, Claire; Annie Parisse as FBI specialist Debra Parker; Shawn Ashmore as young FBI agent Mike Weston; and Kyle Catlett as Claire and Joe's son, Joey. The show earns its title from the cult of Carroll, which proves a formidable and violent adversary for the FBI. The series increasingly reveals Carroll as a talented enabler and predator to the weak and downtrodden, and he attracts three young wanderers to his cause: Emma Hill (Valorie Curry), who first met Carroll at a book signing, and Jacob Wells (Nico Tortorella) and Paul Torres (Adan Canto), who masquerade as a gay couple to assist Carroll in tying up some loose ends from his previous killing spree.
Relentlessly paced, frequently violent and occasionally implausible, The Following is anything but boring. The series moves forward like a train without brakes, plowing through plot twist after plot twist on its way to an explosive climax. Much of the suspense comes because anyone, and I mean anyone, can reveal themselves as an active cult member at any time. Carroll uses his merry band of misfits to kill, maim and intimidate at will, and Emma, Jacob and Paul are given Carroll's most intimate tasks. Emma is revealed as cruel, calculating and totally devoted to Carroll, and The Following creates an interesting love triangle between Emma, Jacob and Paul, who desperately wants sexually confused Jacob to love him. Jacob is the most sympathetic of the trio and is in way over his head. Why are these young people killing for Carroll? Boredom, mostly, along with the desire to join a cause and some deep-rooted mental instability. There are many points in the show when I sympathized with Jacob, Paul or Emma, and The Following does an excellent job painting its sociopathic antagonists as semi-regular Joes when the situation demands they batten-down the crazy.
If convoluted plot twists and questionable police conduct are enough to take you out of The Following, then you may not like this series. Carroll has somewhat clumsily based his conduct on the words of Edgar Allan Poe, but the series dumps most references to "The Raven" author by its final episode. I was slightly bothered by how stupid the FBI and law enforcement agents act throughout the series, charging into death chambers, failing to check for intruders, and consistently bungling the investigation. But there would be no series if the investigation were handled perfectly, so I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. This is violent, pulpy entertainment, and Williamson clearly has a blast throwing so much mayhem at his audience. Each episode is nicely shot and edited, and the major players turn in good work, especially Bacon, who totally sells his burnt-out, world-weary character. It will be interesting to see where things go in Season Two, as The Following has a lot of work to do if it wants to keep up with the sheer momentum of its inaugural season.
PICTURE AND SOUND:
All fifteen episodes are presented with excellent 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfers. There are five, 45-minute episodes on each Blu-ray disc, and the transfers are mostly excellent. Detail is impressive throughout, and The Following appears strikingly sharp, clear and textured. Facial details are impressive, and wide shots dive deep and come back razor-sharp. Colors are often bold and are usually perfectly saturated, and black levels are very strong. There are a few expected irregularities like black crush, digital noise and a bit of softness, but The Following looks great in HD.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks that accompany each episode are quite immersive considering they accompany a cable show. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and effects make great use of the surrounds. Shattering glass, gunshots and screams ricochet through the sound field, and ambient effects like grasshoppers, wind and rain wrap the viewer subtly but effectively. The subwoofer is frequently used to support the action scenes, and the soundtrack is nicely separated and weighty. English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Warner Brothers releases The Following in its expanded "combo pack" format that includes all fifteen episodes on three Blu-ray discs, four DVDs and in HD digital copy format via UltraViolet. The discs are housed in an expanded clamshell case, which slides into a lightweight slipbox. A surprising number of extras accompany the series. Warners revives its Maximum Movie Mode but in this case it's From a Dark Place: Maximum Episode Mode (HD) that accompanies the pilot. You get commentary from Williamson and Director/Executive Producer Marcos Siega alongside on-set footage and interviews with the cast and crew that play over the pilot. Disc one also includes eight minutes of Unaired Scenes (HD). On disc two you get The Thrill of Horror: The Creator Behind The Following (13 minutes/HD); some Unaired Scenes (15 minutes/HD); and several short featurettes: The Followers' Den (2 minutes/HD), The Poe Mask (2 minutes/HD), and Free Megan (2 minutes/HD). Disc three packs in The Cult of Joe Carroll: Inside the Followers (18 minutes/HD); The Following Production Chronicles (28 minutes/HD); and more Unaired Scenes (27 minutes/HD). Finally, you get an Audio Commentary for the Finale by Williamson and Siega.
One of the most entertaining shows on television, The Following: The Complete First Season is bloody, fast-moving entertainment with impressive turns from Kevin Bacon, as a burnt-out FBI agent, and James Purefoy, as a serial killer and cult leader. Series creator Kevin Williamson packs each episode with wild plot twists, jolts and action, and the supporting cast of cult followers teases your moral center. Occasionally implausible, frequently violent and always engaging, The Following comes Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.