Debuts: January 21, 9 PM, FOX
Edgar Allan Poe always scared the hell out of Kevin Williamson. Then again, the horror mastermind loves being scared. ''When I was growing up, my mom and dad took me to the Poe museum in Richmond, Virginia,'' remembers Williamson. ''It was a little house downtown, and 'The Raven' was written on the walls. You had to move from room to room to read the whole story. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.'' Cut to a scene from Williamson's new serial-killer drama, The Following, where a mysterious woman walks up to an ex-FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) and takes off her clothes, revealing that someone has scrawled ''The Raven'' all over her body. What happens next? Let's just say it involves an ice pick, and you might want to watch it with your eyes closed.
If you don't like your drama intense and gory, it's probably best to turn the page now. There are grisly murders on this show, excruciatingly long walks down dark hallways, and more than a few victims whose eyeballs are cut out of their sockets. ''The human eye is connected by seven muscles,'' explains the killer, who's portrayed with full I ate his liver with fava beans relish by James Purefoy, in one scene. ''I removed each one individually. Do you know how hard that is to do?''
But having pioneered the art of intelligent horror with the Scream franchise, Williamson makes the story much smarter and more emotionally compelling than your average splatterfest. Purefoy plays Joe Carroll, a former college professor who taught the works of Poe and killed young women in the gothic hero's honor until he got caught. Since then he's been spending hours on a computer in the prison library, building a social network of copycat killers who hang on his every command. When the series begins, he's just escaped from death row with help from those followers, and the FBI calls in former agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon) who brought down Joe the first time to consult on the case. Ryan also reconnects with Joe's ex-wife, Claire (Natalie Zea), the woman whom both agent and psycho love. With Joe continuing to amass troops for his modern-day Manson family, Ryan must track them down before anyone else dies.
Williamson pitched The Following to Fox, home of his all-time favorite show, 24. ''Sometimes I lie awake at night and cry for Jack Bauer! Clearly, there's some of Jack in Ryan,'' he says. ''Ryan will die saving the moment. He carries the weight of every victim on his shoulders.'' To capture that vulnerability, Williamson needed to cast a tough guy with a boyish side. ''I told my agent, 'I want to get someone like Kevin Bacon,''' he recalls. ''And he said, 'What about Kevin Bacon?''' It turned out Bacon had spent the past four years trying to find the right television project, to no avail. ''I had been looking for quite some time, even trying to develop stuff for myself,'' says the 54-year-old actor. ''One thing that's consistent about the shows I'm drawn to is that they're life-or-death situations. And obviously this is that.''
That's true ... with emphasis on the death part. As The Following progresses, it delves deeper into the lives of Joe's acolytes, especially the three young minions who kidnap Claire and Joe's son and take him away to a country house, where they start planning their own murder spree. Poe masks are donned. Relationships get complicated. It takes a very steamy shower scene to wash all the blood off their hands.
But wait this is a network show, right? So how exactly is Williamson slipping this past Fox's standards-and-practices department? ''There are tricks,'' he says, laughing. ''We had this sex scene in a shower, and the broadcast-and-standards people were like, No. And I'm like, Okay, in the same episode there's an actor cutting someone in the jugular, and you're harping on the sex scene? So I sent a little email to [Fox Entertainment chairman] Kevin Reilly, and within 15 minutes the broadcast-and-standards people were like, It's okay.''
If anyone understands why this show needs to be shocking, it's Purefoy. After accepting the role, he studied as many interviews with serial killers as he could. ''I locked myself away in a room in Los Angeles, watching every single YouTube video,'' he says. ''After a week of that, you emerge, blinking into the sunlight, a bit dispirited about the human condition, but also with a far greater understanding of what goes into making a cult leader. He needs to find people who have something desperately missing in their lives and make them feel accepted.''
Of course, any story about serial killers is also a cautionary tale about fandom. And this one happens to be about a guy who develops a cult following. Kind of like being an actor, right? ''People who play parts like this often get freaky moments with fans, and I'm bracing myself for those,'' admits Purefoy. ''We love a bogey monster, don't we?''