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Kevin Bacon, Seeking A TV 'Following'

Jeannane Goossen and Kevin Bacon star as FBI special agents tracing a network of serial killers in Fox's new crime drama <em>The Following.</em>
Jeannane Goossen and Kevin Bacon star as FBI special agents tracing a network of serial killers in Fox's new crime drama The Following.

In the new Fox TV series The Following, Kevin Bacon plays a former FBI agent asked to help apprehend an escaped serial killer he once put behind bars. The show is from Kevin Williamson, who also created the Scream horror-movie franchise.

One reason Bacon is coming to television is that his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, recently left it. Both of them have spent most of their careers in motion pictures, but once Sedgwick agreed to star in The Closer, for cable's TNT, it ended up lifting her to a new level of stardom and giving her the rewards of a steady job. After seven years, she walked away from The Closer, and television, last August — and, like a tag-team partner, Bacon dived right in and accepted the lead in The Following. Like The Closer, its central character is someone who gets into the head of bad guys.

But with The Following, the structure is a little more focused and serialized. And the tone, and the content, are a lot more grim.

Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who once managed to catch a ruthless serial killed named Joe Carroll, played by James Purefoy. But that was eight years ago. Hardy barely escaped with his life; he quit the bureau, and developed a drinking problem.

Yet when Carroll escapes from prison, the FBI asks Hardy for help, and Hardy agrees to attend a briefing by a young agent named Mike Weston, played by Shawn Ashmore. Hardy is supposed to simply watch and learn — but he can't help speaking up. During Weston's briefing, Hardy interrupts, and Weston knows enough about the case to recognize Hardy by sight.

For Bacon, this is a very good role, and he does very well with it. Ryan Hardy carries so much baggage, and is haunted by so many demons, that he may as well be the reincarnation of Jack Bauer — or, going all the way back to The Fugitive, of Richard Kimble.

And he's not just haunted by his past, he keeps remembering it. The Following has more flashbacks than Lost, and that's really saying something. Flashbacks to the initial murder investigation, to the years since — and other characters go down memory lane, too. So the structure of The Following is complicated, and challenging, but it's very interesting.

So is the conceit that the killer is obsessed with the works of Edgar Allen Poe — and, like Charles Manson, has a family of devoted followers willing to kill, or even die, if he just says the word. And he does. A lot.

I've seen the first four hours of The Following, and there's a lot to praise. As a new TV series, this midseason entry certainly is better than anything served up last fall, and the acting, particularly, is first-rate.

Purefoy, who plays this show's version of Hannibal Lecter, cuts a strong figure — you may remember him as Mark Antony in HBO's Rome. Ashmore, as the FBI agent whose briefing was interrupted by Hardy, is a dynamic foil for Bacon. And Natalie Zea, who plays the killer's ex-wife, is a key figure as well.

But here's a reaction I didn't expect. I'm a big fan of Dexter, and Homeland, so TV violence in itself doesn't throw me. But there's something about The Following that pushes the envelope, especially for broadcast television, in a way that's more than a little unsettling. Not only does it find ways to put children and young women into jeopardy at almost every opportunity, but it stages many scenes of torture and killing through the eyes of Joe Carroll's eager followers.

These scenes show these young people enjoying the act of stabbing, or setting on fire, or otherwise murdering someone, almost like a how-to primer. Yes, they're the villains — but the way these moments are acted, photographed and edited made me feel uneasy about the possible real-world consequences. The violence is overtly glamorized here.

Because the story line of The Following is more like a novel, it can't be fully or fairly judged on the opening chapters alone. There are hints that the mystery may not play out as well as it starts — already, some of the moves by Carroll and his acolytes seem absurdly complicated, like Dr. Evil's "sharks with lasers" in the Austin Powers movies.

But some of the visuals here are so boldly attention-getting — you'll know them when you see them — the TV series begins with style. And with his brooding intensity, Kevin Bacon in The Following, like Kiefer Sutherland in 24, can carry you a long way.

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David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.