In a manner of duplicity that suits its alternating themes of unfulfilled desire and destruction, The Following begins as exceedingly pedestrian and evolves into something deeper. Former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) is summoned out of retirement to track down a dangerous perp who he had already put behind bars nearly a decade ago: an enigmatic, showy, and highly intelligent serial killer named Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), whose overly romanticized butcherings are a tribute to the sordid narratives of Edgar Allan Poe. At the start of the series premiere, Carroll escapes from prison to finalize the one murder Hardy stopped him from bringing to fruition. This initial premise feels phoned-in and slightly stock, with only a couple of quick-jolt, ultra-violent scares inserted to spice up the proceedings.
Yet, by the end of the episode, The Following reveals itself to be more than another prolonged, veteran-cop-versus-sophisticated-psychopath procedural. The show's creator, Kevin Williamson, who penned the script, does a respectable job of slowly luring in viewers with a commonplace but altogether atmospheric and well-paced homicide drama until he veers off the expected course by having the show's Big Bad surprisingly recaptured at the conclusion of the pilot. By keeping its main villain incarcerated for an extended period of time, The Following is unable to write itself into been-there-done-that plot corners by having Hardy and Carroll play a protracted psychical cat-and-mouse game. Carroll, a literary professor and budding horror author before going to prison, is the mastermind behind a cult of dedicated, disturbed individuals who revere his "death is beautiful" philosophy and carry out horrendous deeds in his stead, thus composing his ultimate piece of melancholy fiction with the blood of innocents.
However, in the face of its intriguing foundation, The Following stumbles in one key area: providing believable explanations as to how and why Carroll's unshakable followers are so enamored by him, throwing away their lives in order to annihilate in the name of art and unquenched passion. Purefoy is rather restrained and listless in the role of Carroll, an educated nutjob who isn't prone to the demented outbursts that characterize the most memorable fictitious malefactors; instead the character relies on his menacing, scholarly charm to lure in unstable, potentially vulnerable fanatics. The atrocious extent of Carroll's acolytes' deadly missions, from slaying sorority girls (Carroll's prey of choice) to setting a critic who wrote a scathing review of Carroll's only novel on fire, requires some sort of principal motivation on the part of his brain-washed minions, but it all seems too simplistic—a bunch of lunatics acting as variable surrogates for a much crazier maniac who exhibits the fortitude that they've been afraid to.
Bacon's Hardy is a mixture of the street-smart, exhausted, depressed, alcoholic lawman whose selfless approach to life leaves him alienated and committed to nothing but his occupation. It's a performance that almost always feels sincere, frequently teetering on the edge of triteness, but never toppling over. His best moments are, peculiarly, not when matching wits with Carroll in the interrogation room, but with Carroll's ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea), and his new field partner, Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore). Hardy developed a relationship with Claire while Carroll was imprisoned, and their affair is part of the reason Hardy was placed on leave from the force. They both care intensely for one another, yet Hardy keeps his distance because he feels their connection is a reminder of a difficult stretch in both of their lives. Agent Weston looks up to Hardy and can see that he's a severely damaged man; his kindhearted attempts to break through Hardy's thick shell provide The Following's most emotionally resonant moments.
The series loses some of its drive by its dreary fourth episode, when a labored love triangle between Carroll's disciples mars the overall flow of the central arc. After the disorganized trio kidnaps Claire's ridiculously gullible son, Joey (Kyle Catlett), and holes up at a bucolic ranch in the middle of nowhere, the subplot—which deals heavily with the repressed homosexual tendencies of two straight men who posed as a gay couple for years in order to monitor Carroll's final victim, which in itself is an homage to the buried truths of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"—becomes a bit draggy, distracting from the primary action with Hardy and exuding the pace of the much-maligned farm storyline from The Walking Dead's second season. Until that point, though, The Following is mostly engaging, even if it never truly substantiates its antagonist's godlike stature in the eyes of his worshipers.