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Fox’s ‘The Following’ numb to violence and deadly dull

Keep your wits about you, lest you mistake Fox’s new serial killer drama The Following for a good television show.

Despite its dour atmospherics and some attempts at higher-caliber acting from Kevin Bacon and a large ensemble cast, The Following is a trite, gratuitously violent exercise in still more stylishly imagined American horror stories. It is filled with melodramatic sleuthing that you’ve seen over and over. Enough is enough, isn’t it?

Understandably, some reporters and critics at the recent winter TV press tour in Pasadena, Calif., raised this issue with executives and producers as the networks unveiled a slew of new crime dramas featuring more throat-slittings, rapes and other vicious imagery: Is it time to connect our daily diet of savage crime to, say, recent events in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.?

The Following which premiered last night, was especially ripe for such a grilling because of its remarkably callous body count. The people behind The Following, including its creator Kevin Williamson (who gave us the Scream movies, CW’s The Vampire Diaries and, yes, Dawson’s Creek), insist that this has nothing to do with that.

Which is pretty much what they always say. The murders we see in The Following are committed by knife, mainly, and also flame, because they are zealously carried out by a cult of gothic romanticists who’ve read too much into their well-thumbed volumes of Edgar Allan Poe. To bring The Following into the violence debate (parallel to a gun debate) is to launch a murky conversation that is absent useful data, relying instead on gut instinct.

But I know that our culture has a troubling addiction to murder stories. As U.S. homicide rates have declined (and declined some more), our appetite for fancifully gross killing sprees just keeps growing. That is made clear in TV ratings, where crime procedurals are the only scripted shows that stand a chance of beating NFL games and talent competitions.

The Following, one could argue, is just giving the people what they want: Killers killing and detectives detecting.

Set in Virginia (which is scary enough), the show is about a retired federal agent, Ryan Hardy (Bacon), who is called back to duty when his nemesis, a serial killer and former English professor named Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), eviscerates several prison guards and escapes. Ryan, who copes by taking swigs of pure vodka from a water bottle, correctly deduces that Joe will go after the victim he once maimed but didn’t get a chance to kill (because Ryan stopped him).

To broaden his reach, Joe has recruited a stable of acolytes – followers who have read his terrible novel or swooned in his college lectures, and then visited him in prison for years. They each took on new identities so that, when the time came, they’d be ready to strike.

Imagine the Manson family after a shopping trip to Urban Outfitters. The nanny (Valorie Curry) who works for Joe’s ex-wife may seem like an innocent gamin, but as Joe’s Squeaky Fromme, she’s a serial killer and kidnapper. And those nice gay neighbors, Will and Billy (Nico Tortorella and Adan Canto)? They, too, are serial killers and apparently not gay. (Or are they bi?) The guy posing as a cop? Serial killer! The street performer in the Poe mask? Serial killer!

When Joe allows the FBI to recapture him, it’s soon clear to Ryan that he intends to let his followers do all the dirty work from now on, and boy, do they.

So is this the show that pushed me over some grisly limit? Have I finally lost an ability to shrug at violence? Am I, like Bacon’s character, hurling chairs in grand gestures of frustration? If so, why do I still enjoy The Walking Dead and Homeland? Why was Django Unchained a highlight of my Christmas vacation?

Then I realized: The Following’s fundamental problem is neither its gore nor its brutality; it’s the display of arrogance. Tangled up in easily avoidable cliches of the genre, this is a show that is entirely too pleased with itself and its pretentious concept. It’s not that we’ve become numb. It’s that we’ve become dulled.

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