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The Following: Bloody Awful

The Following, which premiered to much hype on Fox last night, seems to believe the recipe for ambitious cable-style drama is Karo syrup plus red food coloring.

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Is The Following a cable-style drama on network TV? It depends what you think defines “cable-style drama.” Blood, horror, grim sadism, baroque separation of characters from their viscera? Then maybe.

But there’s really a closer analogue for the serial-killer drama, which debuted last night. The Following isn’t a cable drama on network. It’s a CBS drama on Fox. Serial killers? Criminal Minds had those for years. A serial-killer mastermind with a legion of twisted followers? Ditto, but The Mentalist. Horrific murders, children in peril, thriller twists and a general sense that we live in a sick, sad, world? That is, more or less, every crime drama CBS has done since CSI debuted in 2000.

The Following does have more on-screen violence, showing things that the CBS shows will usually leave to the imagination—lots of stabbings and impalings with those trademark Walking Dead sound effects that sound like someone carving a pumpkin filled with jelly. What The Following doesn’t have that distinguishes cable dramas–at least the ambitious ones on Showtime, HBO, AMC or sister station FX–is any serious attempt to rethink the characters and clichés of its genre. Even Dexter, which has stayed on the air past the point of plausibility, was based in a novel approach to the serial-killer genre, taken from its source novels: the serial killer is the protagonist, is aware of his sickness and attempts to channel his proclivities away from harming the innocent.

But Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) fits a pretty common profile from any number of thriller movies: the demented genius with a gimmick. His is that he’s a literature professor, basing his and his followers’ crimes on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. But that’s less a description of character than window dressing for a familiar criminal type, and no amount of leering interrogation sequences or pseudo-academic literary analysis flesh him out any more deeply. We’re meant to believe he’s a charismatic molder of minds, but he just comes off as a self-satisfied douche, a messianic professor as imagined by someone who must have really hated college.

Where The Following does differ from CBS’s stable of crime dramas is that it’s a serial: so, unlike Criminal Minds or Person of Interest, you don’t get a bad guy caught or killed at the end of every episode. Instead, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) glares and trudges on, dealing with mini-crises within the larger story of Carroll’s killer network and his personal vendetta. In this respect, it’s much like Fox’s 24–the small-scale, more personal first season, but with the Serbian terror network replaced by a thrill-kill cult. Moles are everywhere, surprises are around every corner, nowhere is safe.

The appeal of that first 24 season, though, depended a lot on how new and fresh the storytelling felt: the real-time scheme, the relentless pace, the depiction of Jack Bauer as a tired but dogged warrior. The Following doesn’t have that newness, though Bacon does bring a Kiefer-like weary soulfulness to the role of Hardy. In 2001, it would have been one of the most groundbreaking things on TV; in 2013, it’s just the bloodiest thing you can watch for free with rabbit-ear antennae.

So how much you enjoy The Following will largely depend on how much you like it as a pure, disturbing thriller. You’re not going to be watching it for the laughs: it’s thoroughly grim, relentless and unsparing of the People Freaked Out By Violence Involving the Eyes community (of which I am a member). You’re not watching for the brilliant dialogue: it’s the sort of show where Hardy gets reminded “You don’t play well with others” and the murderers get cruel one-liners that could have come from a McBain movie (“Relax, it’s only a flesh wound”).

But—surprisingly, considering how well creator Kevin Williamson tweaked slasher movies in Scream—there’s not much life in all this death, no sense of an animating idea to the series beyond, “Damn, shit is messed up.” After one episode, I found it mildly interesting. After four episodes–what Fox sent to critics–it was just exhausting, a numbing, gross-out slog.

I will say that the criticism that The Following is irresponsible after the Sandy Hook shootings is unfair. There’s no stylized gunplay in this show—it prefers much more intimate murder implements—and it doesn’t exactly valorize Carroll or his twisted disciples. But the show doesn’t need a contemporary news peg to feel cynically brutal, nor do you have to be a prude about violence to think it’s cheaply shocking. There’s nothing wrong with horrific violence that tells an original story, but it doesn’t take much creativity to simply tie up helpless people at knifepoint, over and over, to get a reaction. That’s not suspense, it’s just reflex.

I don’t know if there is a single recipe for creating ambitious, challenging, cable-style drama. But contrary to what The Following’s makers seem to believe, it’s more than just Karo syrup plus red food coloring.