Kevin Bacon in "The Following"

"The Following" is extremely well done, terrifically cinematic and, from a political standpoint, terribly ill timed -- not just featuring a charismatic serial killer and his equally homicidal cult-like followers, but in later episodes including an uncomfortable subplot involving a child.

The Following” is extremely well done, terrifically cinematic and, from a political standpoint, terribly ill timed — not just featuring a charismatic serial killer and his equally homicidal cult-like followers, but in later episodes including an uncomfortable subplot involving a child. Still, if you’re going to play on (or near) cable turf — and that appears to be the goal — there’s no pulling punches, and exec producer Kevin Williamson delivers a full-throttle ride that, four episodes in, proves twisty, unpredictable and tense. Weighing those assets against the unrelenting grimness, the series deserves its own loyal following, despite qualms about its durability.

Add episodic TV to Kevin Bacon’s list of degrees. He plays former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, who tracked down a Hannibal Lecter-like killer, a charming literary professor named Joe Carroll (a perfectly cast James Purefoy), with an inordinate fondness for Edgar Allan Poe. When Carroll escapes, Hardy is enlisted to help find him, though it gives little away to say Carroll’s reach extends well beyond his cell, thanks to the messianic devotion of his followers.

In addition to the other agents who aren’t quite sure what to make of the taciturn Hardy, there’s Carroll’s ex-wife (“Justified’s” Natalie Zea), whose presence complicates matters in intriguing ways. Much of that is doled out through judicious flashbacks, filling in backstories for hunter, prey and other side characters in this gritty melodrama.

Perhaps foremost in a long list of serial-killer cinema, “The Following” brings to mind “Manhunter,” Michael Mann’s crisp 1986 movie that introduced the Lecter character to the screen before “Silence of the Lambs” moved him front and center. (Given the similarities, whether the resemblance bodes well for NBC’s “Hannibal,” directly inspired from novelist Thomas Harris’ creation, remains to be seen.)

As with most entries in this genre, life is almost absurdly cheap — and given the timing, perhaps too cheap. Still, about all Fox can do with the show at this point is slap a disclaimer on it, make clear this is very edgy stuff and hope the program finds the right audience, in sufficient numbers.

Based on the promos, the network clearly sees Bacon as the principal draw, and he’s fine as the world-weary investigator. Still, Purefoy — whose mixture of charm and malevolence dates back to “Rome” for stateside viewers — steals virtually every scene he’s in as the brilliant psychopath, whose ability to seduce, even through prison bars, is a pivotal aspect of the plot.

As tightly constructed as the early episodes are, a skeptic will no doubt ask how this premise can be sustained beyond its initial season, much less forevermore, and it’s a fair question — especially since the detectives often seem to be several moves behind the bad guys in the opening chapters. Darkness has its place, but outright bleakness can be a tough sell, especially for mass consumption.

Despite such reservations, Williamson’s creation (directed by Marcos Siega) is so cleverly executed there’s a desire to cut the show some slack, prepare some Fava beans to accompany a nice Chianti, and see just how far the producers can take this conceit — letting the chips fall where they may. So for now, “Following,” lead on.

The Following

Fox, Mon. Jan. 21, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Atlanta (pilot) and New York by OuterBanks Entertainment in association with Warner Bros. Television. Executive producers, Kevin Williamson, Marcos Siega; producer, Hilton Smith; director, Siega; writer, Williamson.

Crew

Camera, Ramsey Nickell; production designer, Ruth Ammon; editor, Joshua Butler; music, John Frizzell; casting, Greg Orson, Lesli Gelles-Raymond. 60 MIN.

Cast

With: Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Annie Parisse, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, Adan Canto, Nico Tortorella, Kyle Catlett, Jeananne Goossen, Maggie Grace.

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